February 20

Flummoxed. That was my reaction when Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D)issued a warning last month, served with a dollop of hysteria, that Congress could stop funding the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) program if the D.C. Council were to approve a bill creating its own college scholarship.

Wait, didn’t Norton once rail against the Republican-initiated measure that provides D.C. high school graduates up to $10,000 annually to attend out-of-state colleges and universities?

In 1999, when then-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) was poised to introduce the bill, I remember that Norton strongly resisted. She wanted, among other things, to secure “historical black college” designation for the University of the District of Columbia, making it eligible for certain federal funds. She won that fight and subsequently threw her support behind the measure.

It’s Norton’s prerogative to change her mind. But why is she, someone who has advocated for D.C. independence from Congress, attempting to prevent local elected leaders from providing services to D.C. residents through passage of the D.C. Promise initiative? Has she been on the Hill too long? Does she identify more with her colleagues than with D.C. leaders?

“I am just a messenger here,” Norton told me, asserting that congressional rules give appropriators the right to cut funds to a program if a local jurisdiction is paying for one that is similar to the one financed with federal dollars. “I’m sorry it’s that way.”

But who are these appropriators? Who are these destroyers of children’s futures? Norton declined to provide specific names. According to Roll Call, there hasn’t been any public statement from the House Appropriations Committee. A spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee said it was “too early to comment until the president’s budget is submitted” and that the “committee will look closely [at] this when senators decide how much federal money ought to be invested in the existing college assistance program.”

Don’t Democrats control the Senate? Isn’t Norton a Democrat? Isn’t the District a Democratic Party stronghold? So intraparty fighting isn’t just a Republican thing.

Frankly, even before there was a Promise initiative, TAG was at risk. Norton knows that. Still, by her actions, she has suggested that D.C. leaders should relinquish their rights as legislators and do whatever is necessary to retain the $30 million federal TAG appropriation.

The Promise initiative that Norton and others want to kill was introduced in October by council member David Catania (I-At Large). The program would work “best in conjunction with TAG,” Catania said. The amended legislation would provide eligible D.C. high school graduates up to $7,500 annually; lifetime support for the lowest-income student would be capped at $37,500. The grant would cover costs that TAG doesn’t deal with.

Promise supplements — not supplants — TAG. For example, Catania noted in a letter to constituents, tuition and fees for a D.C. resident attending the University of Maryland at College Parkcould total $27,288. The maximum TAG could provide is $10,000. Promise could cover part of the outstanding balance.

A final vote on the initiative is expected next month. Some folks are pushing for additional amendments, however. The council already has made significant changes to satisfy Norton’s concerns, including reducing the amount of the grant and making clear that Promise is used to cover costs that TAG cannot.

TAG supporters have started an online petition at Change.org. Should D.C. officials kill the Promise initiative to protect TAG? My answer is no. Both programs can and should exist. And legislators should refrain from further diluting Promise. Candidly, I’m not happy about some of the changes. Initially, only public school students were eligible; that element would have been an exquisite marketing tool, helping to attract new families to the District while stabilizing middle schools. As amended, the bill would allow graduates from private schools to participate. One good thing: Promise would increase scholarship amounts available to students who attend D.C. colleges and universities, ending the current brain-drain encouraged by TAG.

Interestingly, when TAG was first approved in 1999, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) emphasized “the importance of the District of Columbia looking ahead to and seriously determining how it can and will invest local funds in [TAG], which is designed to benefit local citizens, rather than allowing the program to be wholly dependent on federal dollars for its viability.” That is exactly what Catania and his colleagues are attempting to do.

The District has sufficient revenue to fund the Promise initiative; government documents indicate it would cost only $7.8 million the first year, increasing to about $20 million by 2017. If for some reason Congress foolishly defunds TAG, city officials could grandfather program recipients into the local scholarship program. Finally, there is nothing stopping the council or the mayor from soliciting additional support from corporations and foundations.

If the feds decide to cut and run, there are many viable funding alternatives. Finding and implementing them require local officials to continue to demonstrate backbone, rejecting Norton’s attempt to create a Sophie’s choice.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com