Michigan's Sen. Carl Levin was incorrectly identified as a Republican in Tuesday's editions. He is a Democrat.
The speaker of the House, Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., attended a party here last month and met Frankie Brewer, a guidance counselor at Winder-Barrow High School in Winder, Ga. After suitable apologies, Brewer mentioned to the speaker the hardships imposed on students who had expected to attend college using Social Security survivor education benefits, one of the many programs leveled by Ronald Reagan and approved in the budget "reconciliation" process.
Brewer mentioned in particular Debby Davis, head cheerleader and honor student at Winder-Barrow, who just wouldn't be able to make it under the Draconian provisions of the new law. At 17, Debby is on her own, her father dead and her mother in another city. Having learned finally that the Social Security system would be sending survivor benefits only to those enrolled in college full-time by May 1, she was about to give up the whole idea.
The speaker was so moved by the story that when he went to the White House two days later, he recounted it to the president.
Reagan, instantly sympathetic, turned to counselor Edwin Meese and said, "Find out about this; let's see what we can do."
The speaker said, "No, no, Mr. President. I'm not talking about one individual. I'm talking about thousands who expected to go to college on their parents' Social Security. We made a mistake in Congress when we cut them off, and we ought to correct it. These kids will never be on welfare. They would be contributing members of society."
The chances of reversing the law are dim. The most that can be hoped for is a delay until Oct. 1. Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) has introduced such a bill but hasn't been able to get a hearing on it. Carl Levin (R-Mich.) lined up 20 co-sponsors for a similar bill in the Senate. The Reagan cutoff, however, would save $2.2 billion, and high school students do not have a lobby to compete with groups trying to stop slashes in Medicare, food stamps and the like.
Debby Davis' story has a relatively happy ending. Frankie Brewer and other good people of Winder prevailed on her to make the try, and now Debby attends high school three days a week for six hours each day and then attends four hours of night classes at a nearby community college.
She's a little tired but maybe not quite as tired as Sally Peck, 17, a senior at Georgetown Visitation School who is also a full-time student at Montgomery Junior College. Sally estimates that she drives 80 miles a day to keep up in both places. Madeline Lacovara, Visitation's student counselor, sent a letter to Reagan, pointing out that Sally is an orphan who lives with an aunt and uncle who have six children of their own.
She has received no answer.
Reagan said recently in an interview, "I'm Scrooge to a lot of people and, if they only knew it, I'm the softest touch they've had in a long time."
He probably is. He tells us that he falls for every hard-luck story he hears and gives one-tenth of his income to individuals. He hears about a Debby Davis, and his heart goes out to her. What he cannot relate to is the horde behind her--about 250,000 other high school students who have no hope of relating their dashed hopes to him face to face or of having Speaker O'Neill speak for them.
The cut tells a great deal about Reagan's feelings on the desirability of college education for the maximum number of Americans. The decision was made on the basis that many whose survivors receive the money did not pay that much into the system, and it was further rationalized on grounds that those who lose out can apply elsewhere. But that won't wash, because Reagan proposes to gut Pell grants, for middle- and low-income students, and to cut $1.7 billion from the student loan program by 1984.
What takes the denial of higher education to so many out of the too-bad mode and into the shameful is the way it was done. High school students had to read the newspapers to find out that their college days were imperiled. The Social Security Administration did not notify them that the end was nigh or, that if they were enrolled in time, their annual payments would be cut by 25 percent annually--to zero by graduation year. Downey took it upon himself to tour his Long Island district to alert guidance counselors. Levin says that one Social Security regional office sent out thousands of outdated brochures that promised high school students that they were entitled to benefits for "post-secondary institution."
Downey says the stealth of the action represents "an indefensible breach of government faith."
Reagan doesn't care what his fellow citizens think of government. He does care what they think about him. If he's going to convince them he's the "softest touch they've had in a long time," he could start by being fair to high school students, who have not only been deprived but cheated.