The campaign to repeal the Higher Education Act's (HEA) anti-drug provision got a big boost Wednesday as Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) and 55 other members of Congress introduced the Removing Impediments to Students' Education (RISE) Act, H.R. 1184. With 55 cosponsors already onboard, this year's RISE Act starts out well ahead of the corresponding bill Frank introduced in 2003, which had 38 sponsors at launch time.
Authored by arch-conservative congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), the HEA anti-drug provision bars students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for specified periods of time. The provision applies to any state or federal drug arrest, no matter how minor. Although passed in 1998, the provision went into effect in 2000 and was not aggressively enforced until 2001. Since then, some 160,500 students have lost financial, according to the US Department of Education. Untold thousands more have not even applied, knowing their applications would be rejected.
Rep. Frank has championed bills to repeal the provision for the last six years, but this year's version begins from the strongest position yet. Thursday, Frank and six other members of Congress stood with representatives from some of the more than 200 organizations that support repeal at a noon press conference on Capitol Hill.
"I have seen students come into my office and cry, and weep because they couldn't get financial aid," said Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), adding that such punitive policies are "archaic, insane, make no sense, and are utterly ridiculous."
"The NAACP continues to be ardently and absolutely opposed to any automatic delay or denial of federal educational assistance to students with past drug offenses on their record," said Hilary Shelton, director of the group's Washington bureau. "The NAACP is further committed to do all we can to see to it that this over-punitive and consistently racist policy is overturned."
HEA anti-drug provision victim Marisa Garcia, now a student at Cal State-Fullerton, also addressed the press conference. "More than 160,000 students have been affected by the anti-drug provision," she said. "I am one of them. In January 2000, I was caught with a marijuana pipe. I pled guilty, paid my fine, and thought I'd be able to get on with my life. But when it came time to fill out my student financial aid application, there was that question asking if I ever had a drug conviction."
Without financial aid, Garcia struggled to stay in school, but, thanks to a timely refinancing of the family home and her mother's credit card to buy her books, she was able to stay in college. "Many others are not so fortunate," she said. "It's time for Congress to admit that passing the HEA anti-drug provision was a terrible mistake. Only full repeal of this law will allow students like me to go to college."
Supporters of repeal include the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, whose Larry Zaglaniczny told the press conference "our members believe it is an inappropriate use of federal power to utilize the student assistance programs to deny such assistance to individuals." For Zaglaniczny, the association's congressional liaison, the answer was clear: "Repeal should be accomplished now."
In a spirit consistent with that of Rep. Jackson Lee, who spoke not only of opposing the HEA drug provision but of "standing against it," advocates are not merely seeking to overturn the HEA anti-drug provision but are also working to provide alternate financial assistance to its victims. To that end, DRCNet created the John W. Perry Fund in March 2002. Named after New York City policeman, anti-prohibitionist, ACLU member and libertarian John Perry, who perished saving others at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the fund seeks to make up for the financial assistance lost to students under the HEA anti-drug provision.
While the fund's ability to help students in need has faced financial constraints, fund organizers this year have embarked on an ambitious campaign to increase the size of the kitty while raising awareness of the law and energizing the "bases." Patricia Perry, John Perry's mother, expressed the sentiment in a written statement she provided -- read to attendees by event emcee Arnold Trebach, founder of the Drug Policy Foundation -- in which she concluded, "I encourage all of you to support students through the John Perry Fund as you work to make the Fund unnecessary." Wednesday evening's event was the continuation of a campaign that began in Boston three months before and will wind through locations such as Santa Fe, Seattle and others before it is done.
Looking beyond HEA to the larger drug war, keynote speaker Kemba Smith -- one of a handful of people granted executive clemency by President Clinton from lengthy mandatory minimum drug sentences -- spoke of her friends left behind in federal prison, some serving life sentences, and the dream she has of seeing them one day walk free. Rep. Conyers offered his perspective on the larger political situation as it impacts a range of issues reaching beyond drug policy. Conyers staffer Keenan Keller also took the floor, discussing reentry issues for ex-offenders -- a hot topic on Capitol Hill for both parties these days -- listing the barriers facing the once convicted including not only the HEA drug provision but stretching from welfare on one end to denial of voting rights on the others. Also speaking Wednesday night were David Baime of the American Association of Community Colleges and Nkechi Taifa of the Open Society Institute, as well as Garcia and Swerdlow and DRCNet associate director David Guard.
"The drug provision wrongfully denies equal opportunity for education to young people who have made mistakes in the past," said the bill's leading sponsor, Rep. Joseph Almeida. "We should let these kids move on with their lives instead of holding their mistakes against them by denying financial aid."
While Delaware legislators have already passed a resolution calling for repeal of the drug provision and Arizona legislators will vote any day now on a similar measure, the Rhode Island bill marks the first time a state legislature will consider funding students who have lost their financial aid because of the provision.
"Too many students have had the doors to education and opportunity closed to them because of the HEA Drug Provision," said Chris Mulligan, CHEAR outreach director. "Congress should heed the advice of these concerned Rhode Island legislators, and repeal the law immediately."
With anti-drug provision author Rep. Souder now backtracking furiously and saying he never meant the law to apply to students convicted of drug crimes before starting college, momentum is growing for change -- not just for a partial "reform," as Souder is offering -- but for repeal too.
Video footage and extensive photographs from both events will be posted online sometime next week.