The Higher Education Act reform campaign cleared a hurdle last week with the introduction of H.R. 1053, which will repeal the provision in the HEA delaying or denying federal financial aid for any student with a drug conviction. The bill, introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), will need a significant number of cosponsors to get to the floor, given Republican leadership's support of the provision that it would repeal.
But despite powerful supporters, the HEA provision has formidable opponents as well. The Department of Education, in a letter dated August 7, 1998, outlining its positions on the various amendments then being considered by the Education Committee, stated that it "oppose(s) the language in both versions of the bill suspending aid eligibility for students who have been convicted of any drug offense under Federal or State law."
The Department of Education pointed to the fact that current law already allows judges to strip eligibility for all federal aid if they feel that an individual case warrants such an action. The HEA, as passed last fall, eliminates that discretion.
Peder Nelson, a student at Western Colorado State College, where the HEA Reform Resolution has already been endorsed by the student government, told The Week Online that the Frank bill will give a dramatic boost to the campaign.
"I think that this makes (the campaign for reform) more real in the eyes of students," he said. "I have been dealing with student leaders at other schools in Colorado on this issue, and having our bill introduced has immediately added an urgency and a sense of legitimacy to what we're trying to accomplish." Nelson continued, "One of the problems with student activism is that it tends to be somewhat diffuse. It's difficult, sometimes, for less politically active students to differentiate between a legitimate political effort and a lost cause, and so many of them don't get involved in anything, even if they believe in the principles behind the effort. From what I can tell, I think that we're going to see a flurry of activity on a lot of campuses between now and the end of the school year."
Nelson understands, however, that there are more hurdles to overcome on the road to success. "No one involved in this effort is operating under the illusion that we're going to get this bill passed by finals. This is an effort that will have to continue into the fall semester and probably beyond. But we're preparing for that, and in talking with the other student organizers as well as the DRCNet staff over the Internet, we have an opportunity not only to build momentum now, but to make sure that when the students return, we'll be able to pick up where we left off."
And they won't be alone. With the bill introduced, it is expected that numerous organizations will be joining the effort in the coming weeks.
Jamie Pueschel, legislative director of the United States Student Association, which lobbied against the provision last year, told The Week Online, "The new law (denying aid) is just about as discriminatory as it gets."
There are numerous concerns over the impact of the new HEA provision. These include the fact that such sanctions will only affect students of low to moderate income, and the fact that non-white communities are targeted for drug law enforcement more vigorously than white communities.
"When African Americans make up 13% of drug users, but 55% of those convicted for drug offenses, something is definitely wrong," said Shawn Heller, spokesperson for Students for a Sensible Drug Policy at George Washington University. "The bottom line is that kids are not getting stopped and frisked on the streets in white, middle class communities. This law cannot help but have a discriminatory impact."
Heller believes that the HEA Reform Campaign will get more students involved in the larger issues of drug policy.
"In highlighting the absurdity of this law, and getting students involved in an effort to have it overturned, we have a great opportunity to get them thinking. Why are states increasing prison budgets while they're cutting budgets for higher education? It's the same age cohort that are entering prisons and universities. Why, if drug use rates are steady across most ethnic lines, are we convicting and incarcerating such outrageous percentages of African Americans and Latinos? Why, for all the money spent, and all the people imprisoned, and all the fried egg commercials, can the government not point to a single drug free community, or even a single drug free high school? Today's college students know first-hand that our policies don't work. This campaign, while focused on a particularly egregious example of stupidity, really underscores the problems with the drug war as a whole."
Read about the Higher Education Act reform campaign at http://www.u-net.org.