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Gray Undecided on Controversial Scholarship Program

Despite opposition from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., District leaders advanced a plan to create a new need-based scholarship program funded by the city.

Its fate is unclear, however, as Mayor Vincent Gray, an ally of Norton, has not yet committed to signing the D.C. Promise Act approved by the D.C. Council on Tuesday. He also claims he’s heard no objections from the congresswoman.

“No, I haven’t heard from her on it,” Gray told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday evening when asked about the bill, which would create a grant program that could provide up to $7,500 per year to students who graduate from D.C. schools and plan to attend college or career training.

Promise is an initiative developed and promoted by Councilmember David Catania, an at-large independent who is considering challenging the winner of the April 1 Democratic mayoral primary in the November election.

Upon passage of the bill, Catania released a statement praising the advocacy efforts of D.C. students and families as “critical to the success of this bill” and a sign of “hope for the District’s future.”

Gray, who is competing in the crowded primary field in his bid for re-election, said Wednesday that he had not yet decided how he would act.

His tone was different in a legislative letter delivered to the council on Feb. 4. At the time, Gray urged support for the bill.

“Though concerns remain about the final cost of the bill and its potential impact to other programs, this scholarship program could make a difference for hundreds of students in the District of Columbia who are struggling to pay for higher education,” Gray wrote.

Concern over the Promise program’s impact on funding for the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program came directly from Norton. TAG, which she pushed Congress to create in 1999, has helped more than 22,819 District students of all incomes bridge the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public colleges. Norton warned federal funding could be at risk if Congress decides the city can help students on its own.

On the same day Gray delivered the letter to the council, Norton was raising alarm bells about a statement from Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman Vincent Morris.

Morris indicated that if the D.C. Promise Act became law, Senate appropriators would look closely at it when deciding how much money to invest in D.C. TAG.

President Barack Obama’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget recommends $40 million for the program — a boost from the $30 million Congress appropriated in fiscal 2014 and the $35.1 million Norton suggested in a recent letter.

Obama also suggested changing the annual household income threshold for program eligibility from a cap of $1 million to one of $450,000 starting in the 2015-2016 school year. The change would not affect current grant recipients whose family annual income exceeds $450,000. They would still be eligible for the grants until graduation.

Norton believes support for TAG funding from Obama could help the District avoid cuts. She called a letter to the White House “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.”

Her office did not respond to requests for comment regarding the council’s vote.

She did applaud the administration’s proposed funding level in a statement, but expressed disappointment on the lower income threshold. She fought a similar proposal in fiscal 2014 and intends to do the same this year.

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