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D.C. Leaders at Cross Purposes on Scholarship Plan

Can Washington, D.C., allocate its newfound wealth to defray college costs for some of its poorest high-school students without provoking Congress to cut federal scholarship funds?

An increasingly tense standoff between the District’s elected leaders in Congress and the D.C. Council is laying bare the tension over such a question, and it is all playing out in the shadow of this year’s highly competitive, and crowded, mayoral election.

Members of the D.C. Council spent more than an hour Tuesday debating whether they should be “held hostage” by threats from congressional appropriators before giving preliminary approval to the D.C. Promise Act.

In response, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., has taken “pre-emptive action” and written to President Barack Obama to ask him to shore up fiscal 2015 funding for the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, which she fears might be reduced if the city moves forward with its own need-based scholarship program.

Norton is attempting to put the brakes on the Promise Act effort, which has the support of Mayor Vincent Gray and will be up for final council approval on March 4. She has been warning that the council will be left holding the tab — and the blame — if the $30 million TAG appropriation is cut.

The D.C. Council reasons that a city operating in the black with a $1.75 billion rainy day fund can afford to help its young residents. If the District can help its students, it has a “moral imperative” to do so, in the opinion of Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells. (The Democrat who represents the Capitol Hill neighborhood is also running for mayor.)

“We cannot be held hostage by an amount that the federal government gives us,” Wells said, referring to the $30 million allocated in fiscal 2014 for the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program. The federal program, created by Congress in 1999, helps District students of all incomes bridge the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public colleges with up to $10,000 annually. Those attending private universities in D.C. and historically black schools get up to $2,500 per year.

By comparison, the need-based citywide scholarship program proposed by Councilmember David Catania, an independent who is considering a bid for mayor, would cost the city about $7.8 million in fiscal 2015 and an estimated $42.6 million over the course of the next four years. Promise funds of up to $7,500 per year would help each student “supplement, not supplant” TAG funding, Catania said, and could not be used toward tuition at TAG-eligible institutions of higher learning.

“This council and this mayor better be prepared to step up to the plate,” warned Councilmember Jack Evans, a Democrat who is also campaigning for mayor. Evans believes that a Congress running trillion-dollar deficits might see the $30 million program as an easy cut.

Supporters tried to assuage Norton’s concerns with a package of amendments adopted on Tuesday that lowered the bottom line, reducing maximum aid per student from $60,000 to $30,000, effectively cutting the cost of a program initially estimated to cost the District as much as $50 million per year.

They also emphasized that Promise would be fundamentally different in scope and goals than TAG, which helps students in almost any income bracket offset the higher cost of out-of-state tuition when applying to schools around the country.

Catania indicated he had contacted Capitol Hill to try to root out which congressional appropriators viewed Promise money as a reason to rethink TAG funding.

Norton’s concerns are based on language in a House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee report on fiscal 2014 that invited the city to fund more of the program, saying, “the District of Columbia can contribute local funds to this program if there is demand for the program.”

Neither Appropriations Committee has issued a statement on the D.C. Promise Act, but Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman Vincent Morris said: “It’s too early to comment until the president’s budget is submitted and we see whether the council bill actually becomes law. But I’m sure the committee will look closely [at] this when senators decide how much federal money ought to be invested in the existing college assistance program.”

Norton is requesting Obama provide $35.1 million for TAG in fiscal 2015, saying presidential support would give the program a better chance of avoiding cuts.

“DCTAG survived severe pressure for cuts over the last two years, which saw the largest annual federal cuts in U.S. history, and federal programs are still undergoing annual cuts,” she said in a release. “My letter is one step to do all we can to keep the administration from getting the same signals from the vote on the Promise bill that the appropriators have indicated they received.”

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