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Lamar Alexander blocks vote on funding for minority-serving colleges

The Senate Education Committee chairman wants to extend funding through a broader package on higher education.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. (Cliff Owen/AP)
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With weeks left before $255 million in federal funding for minority-serving colleges and universities expires, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) took to the Senate floor Thursday to request unanimous consent for legislation extending the money.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) objected, shutting down the vote but offering to address the funding in a broader package on higher education.

“Ensuring that historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions continue to receive federal funding is something that we all want to do,” Alexander said on the floor Thursday. “However, instead of a short-term patch, we should pass a long-term solution that will provide certainty to college presidents and their students. I am ready to do this, in conjunction with a few additional bipartisan higher education proposals.”

Alexander’s move has caused consternation among advocates for historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions, who accuse him of using the schools as leverage for his agenda. They say that time is running out, with little chance that Republicans and Democrats will agree on reforms by the end of the month.

“While we appreciate the proposal for a longer-term or permanent solution ... recent congressional history suggests that such a proposal would not receive the requisite approval by both houses of Congress before the deadline,” said Harry L. Williams, the president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports historically black public colleges.

Alexander said many of the proposals in his package already enjoy bipartisan support, including reducing the number of questions on the federal financial aid application and giving prison inmates access to federal grant aid.

Williams and congressional Democrats say it is imperative that the Senate take action on the bill — dubbed the FUTURE Act — that Jones and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced. The legislation would pay for a two-year extension of the funding by eliminating a subsidy for guaranty agencies that insure some federal student loans.

House backs funding for minority-serving colleges, but will the Senate?

This week, the House approved its version of the bipartisan bill, sponsored by Reps. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) and Mark Walker (R-N.C.), on a voice vote. Senate Republicans showed no interest in taking up the bill. At the time, Alexander said he would prefer a long-term solution to be reached through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the federal law governing the sector.

The proposals Alexander announced Thursday are already being discussed as a part of the reauthorization process, which could complicate matters and stymie a deal to save the funding.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, has opposed a piecemeal approach to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and is unlikely to support anything less than a comprehensive bill.

“We should pass the bipartisan Future Act instead of playing politics with valuable and under-resourced institutions,” Murray said on the Senate floor Thursday.

The funding, established in 2008, is for schools that primarily educate minority students: tribal colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, and historically black colleges and universities. Many colleges use the money for STEM programs — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and for scholarships and to improve facilities. Some money from the current appropriation will carry over into the next two years, according to the Education Department.

Still, Jones and other advocates for minority-serving schools say Congress could and should do more to ensure that new awards will be made. There is a possibility that House Democrats could include language extending the funding into a spending bill to keep the government open, but for now, nothing has been announced.

“I’m glad that Senator Alexander ... is open to doing something more long term on this as a part of a bigger package,” Jones said in an email. “But it’s still disappointing that this bipartisan bill ... can’t get done this month on its own merit. These schools just want to be able to focus on their mission, and we need to give them the certainty they need to be able to do so.”