House Education Committee Assigns Responsibility for HBCU, HSI Programs to New Subcommittee Democratic committee members say shift means second-class status for minority institutions
An unexpected but heated debate on congressional oversight of Black colleges is threatening to thwart efforts at bipartisan education policy early in 2001.And the partisan rancor is surfacing from what is usually a mundane procedural issue: the responsibilities of subcommittees in the U.S. House of Representatives.Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee in February unveiled changes in the structure and jurisdiction of the subcommittees under its umbrella. Under this plan, a new subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness will oversee nearly all Higher Education Act (HEA) programs — except for aid to historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and a few small programs. Instead, these remaining programs would be grouped with juvenile justice, child abuse and runaway youth programs under another new subcommittee, called Select Education.The plan drew immediate criticism at the committee’s organizational meeting, as Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus members say the move may mean second-class status for minority-serving colleges. In past years, all higher education programs — including aid to HBCUs and HSIs — fell under the same subcommittee.“It sends a dangerous signal that Black colleges and HSIs do not deserve to be part of higher education and competitiveness,” says Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., a former CBC chairman, who noted he was “personally offended” by the move.“It’s a slap in the face to those institutions of learning. To put Black colleges and HSIs with juvenile justice and child abuse certainly sends the wrong signal,” he adds.The new 21st Century Competitiveness panel is “where you will deal with higher education” says Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y. “We see the movement as segregating [HBCUs and HSIs] from other higher education concerns.”Republicans countered that they have no hidden agenda, claiming they simply wanted to reorganize issues and subcommittees in a more coherent manner. “This move was in no way meant to diminish the importance of these institutions,” says Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the newly elected chairman of the Education and Workforce panel. According to Boehner and other GOP lawmakers, programs for students — such as financial aid — would fall under the 21st Century Competitiveness subcommittee, while programs for institutions, including HBCUs, would move to the Select Education subcommittee.But Owens noted that appearances are important. “I don’t think there’s any malice here,” he says. “But it’s about perception — whether these programs [for HBCUs] belong in the same category with social problems,” such as child abuse and juvenile delinquency.The committee’s senior Democrat, Rep. George Miller,of California, also termed the reorganization a mistake. “It’s about attitude and appearance and message and status,” he says in arguing against the plan.Some supporters of the new structure say they believe that HBCUs and HSIs would gain visibility under the new plan. They note that the chairman of the new Select Education subcommittee, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., is a key leader in the House Republicans’ HBCU Task Force launched with much fanfare last year (See Black Issues, Aug. 17, 2000).
HBCU Support?“We want to help these colleges and universities survive, grow and thrive,” Hoekstra says. Hoekstra also says he talked with 40 HBCU presidents before the organizational meeting and found support for the panel’s ideas. “They have been satisfied with our results,” he says, citing the 36 percent increase in Title III-B HBCU funding and six-fold increase in HSI funding during the past five years.Both sides also trotted out letters from HBCU leaders supporting their views. In a letter to Republican leaders, Dr. Michael Lomax, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, endorsed the GOP approach. “I am confident the new subcommittee structure will increase awareness of the issues impacting institutions like HBCUs that have special needs in order to increase their competitiveness in the global economy,” Lomax wrote.But Dr. James Hefner, president of Tennessee State University, says he was “deeply troubled” by the proposals to restructure the subcommittees and leave HBCUs separate from most higher education services. The new structure, he says, “would relegate HBCUs and HSIs to a new subcommittee on select education that has no charge to explore expanding higher education opportunities that are racially and ethnically inclusive.”The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education also voiced concern. NAFEO institutions are “deeply alarmed” by plans to restructure subcommittee work, says Dr. Henry Ponder, the association’s president. “There is great concern in the HBCU community that such a move poses a most serious threat to the substantive and procedural viability and vitality of the federally sponsored HEA programs that serve HBCUs,” Ponder says.The new subcommittee structure will take effect because Republicans hold the majority on the Education and the Workforce panel. After nearly three hours of debate, the full committee voted 24 to 20 to adopt the new system. Earlier, the panel defeated an amendment by Owens to place all higher education programs under one subcommittee.
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