Congress is close to producing a miracle: a piece of progressive legislation, of bipartisan provenance, whose unintended consequences may turn out to be pleasant surprises. Its fate rests with the Senate, since it already has passed the House unanimously.
I'm talking about the District of Columbia College Access Act, under which D.C. high school graduates would be allowed to attend state universities at in-state tuition rates, with the federal government picking up the difference. The Clinton administration already has set aside $17 million for the purpose.
The legislation began as an act of simple fairness. D.C. students, unlike their counterparts in the 50 states, do not have a network of state-supported colleges and universities at their disposal. They have the often hard-pressed open-enrollment University of the District of Columbia. That's a bit like residents of Dayton having only Central State as an alternative to full-tuition education.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), has broad backing in the government and out. Among its supporters and sometime-lobbyists are a group of private corporations and foundations that have come together to form the nonprofit D.C. College Access Program. Washington Post Publisher Donald E. Graham, chairman of the access program, says the group will raise $20 million this year to help place counselors in the local high schools and to help students meet college expenses after other sources of financial aid have been tapped.
The program is similar to a highly successful one launched in Cleveland a few years ago. Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who has been leading the fight for the tuition bill in the Senate, is a former mayor of Cleveland.
I don't mean to sound as if the bill already has been enacted. It hasn't, and some possible snags remain in the Senate.
But there were snags in the House, too, until a combination of serious purpose, patience, accommodation and goodwill got them resolved.
For instance, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University, and Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity College, were concerned that the legislation would put their D.C.-based institutions at a disadvantage with their Maryland and Virginia competitors. That issue was resolved with an agreement to provide a $2,000 annual subsidy for District students attending local private colleges.
The major remaining problem is a disagreement over which states' colleges would be eligible for the federal subsidy. The House measure would apply to all 50 states. Some -- notably Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) -- think that might prove too costly and also put D.C. residents ahead of their counterparts elsewhere. Jeffords has introduced his own bill that would cap the program's cost at $31.5 million next year and limit D.C. residents' choices to Maryland and Virginia schools.
What's interesting about that last, seemingly common-sense idea is that when the issue was statehood or full voting representation for District residents, some opponents argued that the nation's capital belongs to the citizens of all the states. Doesn't the reverse of that argument make just as much sense: that all the states share responsibility for the District?
That issue, too, will be resolved -- as will the question of what to do about including the historically black colleges and universities that have proven particularly attractive to D.C. residents.
Indeed, Norton argues that not every controversy and contingency needs to be resolved in the legislation. She argues for general guidelines that would give the D.C. mayor the flexibility to respond to actual experience. Maybe, she says, there won't be any need for some of the proposed restrictions -- or maybe there will be a need for means testing.
There's hardly any dispute, however, on the central issues. The expanded choices -- along with the counseling provided by the College Access Program -- should be a great boon to District children, reminding them that important people are working in their interest and perhaps inspiring hundreds of them to strive harder in elementary and secondary school.
It could even wind up stabilizing the city. Norton believes that many D.C. residents leave the city in order to take advantage of in-state tuition rates.
But what strikes me as the true miracle is that this complex and important piece of legislation is being worked out quietly, bipartisanly and utterly without racial and political rancor.