D.C. Council tentatively approves Promise scholarship program


File: Council member David Catania speaks to parents and concerned citizens about the D.C. Promise Establishment Act, at a PTSA meeting at Eastern Senior High School near Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 24, 2014. (Evelyn Hockstein /For The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council on Tuesday tentatively approved a new taxpayer-funded college scholarship program, voting unanimously despite lingering concerns among members that the initiative could endanger a popular federal program that helps city residents pay for higher education.

If the council gives final approval next month, the new D.C. Promise program would provide the city’s low-income high school graduates with up to $7,500 per year for college.

“We have to ensure that we are investing in our young people,” said David A. Catania (I-At Large), who introduced the bill and is considering a mayoral bid. “We are a jurisdiction with the resources to do this, to dream for our young people a future that is better than that which we have.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) warned the council that passing Promise could torpedo congressional support for a federal scholarship program that’s unique to the city and has become key to how thousands of families budget for college.

If the District can pay for its own college-access program, Norton argued, congressional appropriators might see no reason to continue spending tens of millions of dollars a year on the federal program, known as the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant, or TAG. After Tuesday’s vote, she reiterated that the threat to TAG is real.

“I will fight to save DC TAG,” Norton said in a statement. “If D.C. residents lose DC TAG funding for now or in the future, I know that they will hold the Council accountable to replace whatever funds are lost.”

TAG provides most D.C. high school graduates with up to $10,000 to attend out-of-state public schools or up to $2,500 to attend a private university in the Washington area or a historically black college. The program aids more than 5,000 students each year, and it has brought more than $317 million to 20,000 students since its inception in 2000. This year, Congress appropriated $30 million for the program.

TAG is available to all D.C. high school graduates from families that earn less than $1 million per year. Promise funds would be doled out on a sliding scale and reserved for students from families with less than 200 percent of median income — about $215,000 for a family of four. Students could be eligible to receive money from both programs.

The threat to TAG was the only question looming over Catania’s proposal, and it triggered an hour-long debate Tuesday during which the fate of Promise seemed far from certain. Lawmakers discussed not only the effect on TAG, but also whether the city should base policy decisions on possible congressional reaction.

Mayoral candidates Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) offered the most vocal opposition to Promise, saying that passage of the bill would mean uncertainty for students currently receiving TAG money.

“If we pass this bill, we jeopardize the TAG program,” said Evans. “Are we willing to take that risk?”

Several council members, including mayoral candidate Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), countered that the city can’t allow its decisions to be dictated by threats from a fickle Congress.

“This is a home-rule issue. This is a statehood issue,” said Anita Bonds (D-At Large). “It is about us in the District of Columbia doing all that we can to help our young people.”

Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) called the choice between the two programs a “false choice,” adding that TAG funding is often uncertain in today’s partisan Congress. “I don’t want to subject what we do with our D.C. students to the whims of those on Capitol Hill,” McDuffie said.

In response to Norton’s concerns about Promise, Catania agreed this month to revise the proposal, reducing the maximum award from $12,000 to $7,500 per year and specifying that the Promise funds may be used only for non-tuition expenses such as books or room and board at TAG-eligible schools.

The changes mean that the total cost of Promise would be about $7.8 million in its first year, topping out at about $20 million per year, or about two-thirds of the annual cost of TAG. It’s not clear that the lower cost would placate concerns on Capitol Hill.

“If that bill becomes law, the committee would certainly look closely at it when senators gauge the amount of federal money that should be set aside for the existing college tuition assistance program,” said Vincent Morris, a spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) committed to meeting with Norton to address her remaining concerns, but said the city must be able to offer more aid to make college affordable. “DC TAG, as wonderful as it is, is not enough,” Mendelson said.

For D.C. Promise to become a reality, lawmakers must pass it and fund it in the city budget. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) indicated his support, writing in a letter to the council that while there are still questions about the overall cost of Promise, he wants to ensure that each city child has “equal access to a vigorous education.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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