The political battle over the Higher Education Act's (HEA) anti-drug provision, which bars students with drug convictions from obtaining federal financial aid for college for specified periods, is heating up. With the release of its fiscal year 2005 budget, the Bush administration signaled that it is supporting a move by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), the provision's author, to redraw the measure to include only students who are convicted of drug offenses while they were in school. But that doesn't go far enough for the coalition that has grown up around the issue, which wants to see outright repeal of the anti-drug provision, and the battle lines are being drawn as the HEA faces a reauthorization fight this year.
Stung by criticism from across the educational establishment and harried by student drug activists, drug warrior Souder has engaged in a tactical retreat from the law he wrote. The wording of that provision clearly made no distinction between old drug arrests and arrests made while students are in school, but according to Souder, that's not what he meant. He only meant to include students arrested while in school, he said.
Now, in the 2005 Department of Education budget, the Bush administration has included Souder's anti-drug provision version 2.0 in its proposals around HEA reauthorization. In a press release announcing the new budget, the Department of Education noted that the budget seeks to:
"Clarify that student aid applicants who have been convicted of a drug-related offense are only ineligible for Federal student aid if the offense was committed while they were attending school."
The proposal was part of a package of HEA proposals that also included reducing interest rates for most borrowers, slightly increasing loan limits, broadening repayment options, and increasing loan forgiveness for math and science teachers in poor communities.
"This is a clear signal that they want to change the policy," said Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance's Washington office, a member of the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR). "Souder now claims that the anti-drug provision has been misinterpreted from the beginning, but what is unclear is whether the Bush administration will be able to unilaterally change the provision," he told DRCNet. "There are two different versions of Souder's reinterpretation in the House and Senate bills for the Office of National Drug Control Strategy budget, and HEA reauthorization is coming up in a month or two."
"This means it is more likely that the Souder proposal will pass, which we have mixed feelings about," said Scott Ehlers, outreach coordinator for CHEAR, a coalition which includes such organizations as the NAACP, the ACLU and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. "If his reform proposal passes, that opens up aid for more students, but it also may make full repeal more difficult, and that's what we really want."
The fact that the Souder proposal showed up in the Education budget suggests that Souder asked the president to put it in, said Ehlers. "This is really more of a policy issue than a budget issue," he said, "but putting this in the Education budget sends a signal to congressional Republicans that this is the president's policy on this issue. This makes me more confident that we will get some sort of reform this year, but the question is how far it will go. It is important that we get reform, but partial reform isn't enough."
Still, the likely passage of the Souder proposal showed up in the budget does not fundamentally change reformers' strategy, said Ehlers. "We're going ahead with the successful game plan that we have previously laid out," he said. "We've won on the message that HEA needs to be fixed, now we need to work to get full repeal."
DRCNet executive director David Borden recounted that an amendment offered by Rep. Souder in the Education and the Workforce Committee in May 2000 would have enacted his proposed reform back then. "For half a year we and our allies on Capitol Hill believed, albeit incorrectly, that the Souder reform was pretty much a done deal, and we communicated this to our grassroots networks. Yet there was no perceptible dampening effect on the enthusiasm of activists or interest in Congress in full repeal. I believe that repeal remains a viable eventual goalt, even after Souder's partial scale-back of the law actually happens." Borden added, "Souder has been talking about this change for five years, but made no concerted effort until now to actually ensure it happened. So we're not sure whether his motivation is compassion for some would-be students, or if he just saw it as a good public relations strategy to pose as the reformer."
The effort moves into a new phase next week, with announcements set to go out on Monday from DRCNet (the founding and coordinating organization of CHEAR), Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and other organizations, calling a national phone-in day on Thursday to lobby legislators, a student-led national day of action in the spring and a program of campus activism in the meantime.
"Congress has clearly heard the message that the anti-drug provision needs fixing, and now we need them to go a step further than Bush and Souder want to take it," said DPA's Piper. And because of all the work of thousands of people around the country, the momentum for change is mounting."
Visit http://www.raiseyourvoice.com on Monday afternoon for updated information on the campaign to repeal the HEA drug provision. Visit http://www.ssdp.org for information on Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Visit http://www.drugpolicy.org for the web site of the Drug Policy Alliance.