Friday, February 17, 2012

2012 National Legislative Summit Brings Together Cross-Section of Congress For Forum

The 2012 Community College National Legislative Summit brought together lawmakers from both houses and both sides of the aisle for its first-ever Congressional Forum. Held in the Capitol Visitor Center, the Wednesday morning forum featured frank talk on Pell Grants, workforce training programs, and the overall future of federal support in higher education.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stressed the importance of continuing federal support for the community college agenda, asserting that "nothing reduces the deficit more than investments in education."

"We are committed to reigniting the American dream and building ladders of responsibility," Pelosi said. "Community colleges are an important rung on that ladder.... Let's take this debate to a higher ground, of consideration of what our values are as a country and the role that education plays in them -- and the roles that community colleges play in that." Pelosi thanked ACCT Chair Roberto Uranga, ACCT President and CEO J. Noah Brown, and Community College League of California President and CEO Scott Lay, as well as the American Association of Community Colleges, for their hard work.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.) addressed the growth of the Pell Grant program, warning that Pell will not be sustainable in the long-run "without addressing the underlying systemic forces that undermine federal aid programs." Federal support to higher education, he added, "is not going to go away -- but it will be less and less effective if we don't make meaningful changes now."

Enzi also questioned the Obama's Administration's pledge to provide new funds to community colleges. "Every new program we add means an existing program is going to suffer," Enzi said, urging community college leaders to "protect your existing programs, and come up with ways to make them better and fairer."

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) stressed his commitment to programs that "maintain and preserve your important work," including Pell and Perkins grants, as well as his own bill, the Job Opportunities Between our Shores (JOBS) Act, which would support partnerships between community colleges and advanced manufacturing firms. "The President wants to double exports," Hoyer said. "We will not double exports unless we make things in America."

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) drew from her own experience as a community college president who faced budget cuts to urge NLS attendees to "find ways to do the things you must do without more money."

"We have a real economic crisis in our country, and I want to challenge you as leaders in the community college system," Foxx said. "It can be done."

Foxx also discussed the ongoing work around reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), arguing that there is a need to consolidate the 47 job training programs currently overseen by nine federal agencies. "These programs can provide a boost to communities hard hit by the economy -- we all agree on that," she said. "But we have redundancies, waste, overlap, and multiplication of services. These sow confusion and are a detriment to the people who need them."

While the lawmakers made few direct references to their colleagues on the other side of the aisle, they drew comparisons in their comments. "We're going to have debates here in Washington with those who think educating our citizens is too expensive," said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) "I represent the side that says that ignorance will cost our country more. There's no chance a country of 300 million people can compete with countries of a billion people unless we educate everyone to their full potential.... Community colleges are the best dollar we can invest in our nation."

Pointing to the need for increased completion rates, expanded partnerships with local industries, and services for returning military veterans, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called on community college leaders to "redouble your efforts as you continue to innovate and adapt to our changing economy."

"We have a lot to do," Murray said. "It's not going to be easy, but our country has taken on challenges before and always come out ahead. And I'm pretty confident that community colleges are going to lead the way."

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