Wednesday, February 15, 2012

2012 National Legislative Summit Examines Election-Year Priorities

One day after President Barack Obama unveiled his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year at Northern Virginia Community College, trustees and presidents convened in Washington, D.C., for the 2012 Community College National Legislative Summit fully aware of the election-year challenges ahead of them.

"We know we have a presidential election in November, which increases the hyperpolitical nature of what's going on in D.C.," said ACCT Director of Public Policy Jee Hang Lee.

Obama's proposed budget and earlier initiatives include unprecedented funding for community colleges, including $5 billion for modernizing community college infrastructure and an $8 billion Community College to Career fund that builds on the existing $2 billion Community College and Career Training Grant Program. With the odds of passage uncertain, NLS speakers urged community college leaders to not lose sight of programs already in place. For example, the CCCTG program has already survived several "minor but real" threats and is likely to face them again, cautioned Jim Hermes, AACC director of government relations.

Nowhere is preserving existing programs more critical than the $40 billion Pell Grant program, which serves 9.7 million students. Facing a $1.3 billion program shortfall, lawmakers recently made several significant eligibility changes, including the elimination of benefits for "ability to benefit" students who lack a high school diploma or GED, said ACCT Senior Public Policy Associate Jennifer Stiddard. "A lot of these changes disproportionately impact community colleges and working students," Stiddard said. "It's important that Pell be kept whole."

Looking ahead, the Pell Grant program will face an $8 billion shortfall in FY 2014, which is also the first year that it will be eligible for the across-the-board cuts required by the the Budget Control Act's sequestration provision.

Given the challenging budget climate, ACCT and AACC leaders urged community college leaders to continue stressing the impact of their institutions. "In budget parlance, there's a difference between consumption and investment," said David Baime, AACC senior vice president for government relations. "Education is an investment."

Earlier in the day, former U.S. Senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah) urged NLS attendees to "tell the story of the enormously significant financial bargain that community colleges are."

"Community colleges are an undiscovered jewel in terms of the impact they can make in the lives of young people," he said.

Former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) was even more succinct in his advice: "You have a terrific approach, with autonomy on the local level and serving the public in need," he said. "Don't let the politicians mess things up."

The 2012 Community College National Legislative Summit continues today with opening speaker Roberto J. Rodriguez, special assistant to the President for education, White House Domestic Policy Council, a Congressional Forum with a roster of Congressional speakers, and the 2012 Capital Awards Banquet, at which U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) will be awarded the 2012 National Education Service Award for his dedication to community and technical colleges.

For the full program, click here.

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