Feature: Maryland Delegate Introduces Bill to Ease State Aid for Students Affected by Federal Drug Provision 2/24/06

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Maryland Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery County) has introduced a bill in the Maryland General Assembly designed to make it easier for students who lost federal financial under the Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision to obtain financial assistance through state programs. According to a recent report from DRCNet and the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, or CHEAR, Maryland is one of 35 states where at least some college students are being denied state financial aid, 28 of which have no law on their books explicitly prohibiting it. The state's largest institution of higher learning, the University of Maryland, is among those denying students disqualified under federal law from receiving state financial assistance.

Under the HEA's drug provision, sponsored by arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), students with drug convictions lose financial aid -- grants, loans, even access to work-study programs -- for specified periods. According to the US Department of Education, more than 180,000 have been barred under the provision since it went into effect in summer 2000.

University of Maryland
Critics say the law is flawed because it punishes students a second time who have already been punished once by the criminal justice system; deters students from seeking to better their life prospects through education; singles out drug offenses among all crimes for additional punishment; and has a discriminatory impact, disproportionately affecting poor and minority students. In the face of criticism of the law he authored, Rep. Souder claimed the law was not intended to apply to people whose offenses took place before they entered school -- despite no language in the legislation suggesting that was not his intention -- and late last month a partial "fix" to the law was finally passed, limiting its application only to students who committed drug offenses while in school and receiving federal Title IV aid.

According to CHEAR's report, while only seven states have laws barring drug offenders from receiving state financial aid, in another 28 states, statewide policy achieves the same affect. In 15 states and the District of Columbia, there are no state-mandated obstacles to drug offenders receiving state financial aid, while Maryland and 10 other states inhabit a middle ground where the decision about whether to grant aid resides with individual colleges and universities.

Neither the Maryland Higher Education Commission nor the University of Maryland student financial aid office returned repeated calls for clarification this week.

Maryland House Bill 1310, which already has 27 cosponsors, would bar the Maryland Higher Education Commission's Office of Student Financial Assistance from refusing to accept an application for state assistance if the student's federal financial aid application was denied "because the requirements for federal student aid are more restrictive than the statutory requirements for state student financial assistance," according to the bill summary.

"Minor procedural changes at the Commission or the university itself would correct this problem and restore financial aid to people affected by the HEA drug provision," said DRCNet executive director David Borden, a report coauthor. "For that matter, they don't need to wait for the bill to pass, since there are no laws on the books telling them to take the aid away now."

The legislative strategy adopted in the bill -- not mentioning the word "drug" -- was one of two possible approaches recommended in the CHEAR report, explained Borden. "A legislature can say that people affected by the federal HEA drug provision shouldn't be denied state financial aid because of it," he said. "Or a legislature can just say that its state's education agency and schools may not deny financial aid as an indirect effect of federal policies that don't have analogues in state law. Maryland doesn't have a drug provision in its statutes that authorize higher education programs, so the language in House Bill 1310 would have the effect of requiring the bureaucracies to find a way to get state aid to these people if they are eligible financially."

It was a University of Maryland student activist, Jonathan Sherwin, who brought the idea to Gutierrez's attention. Sherwin, a legislative intern in Gutierrez's office who had been active with UMD's Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter, took the opportunity to raise the issue. "This is a bill idea I worked on in college and I thought it was good policy for students to be able to receive financial aid, so I told her about it. She liked it and had me write up a draft, which we sent to the legislative policy department for final touches, and now here we are."

"We hooked up with Jonathan and Gutierrez' office while we were doing research for the report," said DRCNet associate director David Guard. "The report will just solidify the effort to get it through the legislature." Borden elaborated on that idea: "Legislators like to see that there are other states doing this and that they are not going to be all alone doing something that could be mis-portrayed as 'soft on drugs.' The report shows that nearly a third of all states already are providing state financial aid irrespective of drug convictions."

CHEAR and DRCNet are working with Gutierrez' office to prepare for hearings, Guard said. "They've asked us to find student victims of the current policy and help bring together experts to testify, and we're working on that. The great thing about this is that we have this coalition and most groups have offices right here in DC and it should be easy for people from these national groups to just pop over to Annapolis," he said. "We're prepared for this. We've been working on this issue for years, we've got the professionals, the academics, the doctors, the policy wonks."

The bill has been an easy sale so far, said Sherwin, when asked how it had picked up 27 cosponsors. "We just walked around to the offices, and a lot of people were sympathetic," he said.

Introducing a bill is one thing. A bill to reverse Rhode Island state policies barring aid to students with drug convictions was introduced last year, but went nowhere, though advocates are hopeful for its chances the second time around. Even with a couple of dozen cosponsors, prospects for the Maryland bill are uncertain. "I have no idea if we can push it through this year," said Sherwin. "We don't have a hearing date set yet."

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Issue #424 -- 2/24/06

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