College students saw a $12.7 billion reduction in student loan spending in the budget bill passed by the House of Representatives Wednesday. But in passing the bill, Congress also provided some small solace for some of them because it also scaled back the much-reviled Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision. That law, authored by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) in 1998, bars students with drug convictions -- no matter how minor -- from receiving student financial assistance for specified periods of time (a year to indefinite) from their conviction dates. The change approved by the House amends the HEA to allow some students with past offenses to receive aid, but still retains the penalty for those whose offenses were committed while they were enrolled in school, and receiving aid.
Wednesday's vote was a final procedural vote on the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which both houses approved late last year. It now goes to President Bush to be signed into law.
The partial fix came in response to pressure generated by a broad coalition of student, educational, professional, and civil rights organizations in the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, a grouping coordinated by DRCNet. In the face of calls for a complete repeal of the provision, Rep. Souder decided he had intended all along for the law to apply only to currently enrolled students and offered his "fix." In the meantime, more than 180,000 students have been denied financial aid, according to the US Department of Education.
"After years of political posturing and empty promises, Congress has finally helped some students harmed by this misguided policy," said Kris Krane, newly-named executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "But this minor change is just a ploy to sweep the penalty's problems under the rug. Tens of thousands of students will still be pulled out of school every year because politicians failed to listen to our concerns. The only option students have left is to take action in court."
DRCNet's David Borden, who has pressed the issue since the drug provision was passed in 1998, was more sanguine about continuing the legislative campaign. "The Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) approved further-reaching changes to the law before the education language got moved to the budget bill. This did not get its fair share of discussion because there was no education conference committee and the budget conference committee existed only on paper. We intend to press for Congress to remove the drug question from the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form -- which their own Advisory Committee Congress appointed recommended -- the next time they look at the Higher Education Act, which will probably be this year."
Whatever comes next, the repeal coalition can pat itself on the back for what it has achieved. For the first time since the "safety-valve" sentencing reforming legislation in 1994, a major piece of the federal drug war has been scaled back, even if only in part.