Education Secretary Arne Duncan, center foreground, chats with inmates enrolled in an education program at a local prison on July, 31 in Jessup, Md. Listening in on the discussion are Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), top center. Inmates are, from left, Kenard Johnson, Alphonso Coates, and Terrell Johnson. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The vote to ban prisoners from receiving federal Pell grants for higher education happened so long ago that Sen. Ben Cardin said Friday he doesn’t remember what side he took.

However he voted, Cardin said, the ban was a mistake.

In April 1994, the Maryland Democrat was in the Democratic-led House of Representatives. The record shows that Cardin actually voted against the Gordon amendment to a massive crime bill.

That amendment, sponsored by then-Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), was approved on a bipartisan vote of 312 to 116. The Gordon amendment inserted the ban on Pell grants for prisoners into the crime legislation, and the bill was eventually signed by President Clinton, also a Democrat.

Times have changed.

Now another Democrat in the White House, President Obama, is rethinking federal education policy toward prisoners. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, at a Maryland prison in Jessup, announced an experiment Friday that creates a modest exception to the ban. It will test what happens when a limited number of prisoners get Pell grants.

[Read more: ‘A diploma really is a crime-stopper.’]

Cardin, with Duncan and Lynch, said Congress should repeal the ban. “It was an overreaction,” he said. “We should change that.” Providing funding for prisoner education, he said, “is not only the right policy, it saves money.” Those who are educated in prison, he said, are less likely to become repeat offenders when released.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), elected to the House in 2008, also was on hand at Jessup for the administration announcement. Edwards, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 2016, has sponsored a bill to repeal the ban that now has 44 co-sponsors. But there is little chance it will pass the Republican-led House.

The Pell-for-prisoners experiment “is a way to turn the corner on mass incarceration by providing educational opportunities so that when people are released and return to our communities they do not reoffend,” Edwards said in a statement. “I am grateful that the Administration, Attorney General, and Secretary of Education are prepared to provide the first step forward.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), also seeking the Democratic Senate nomination, also atttended the Jessup event. Van Hollen, first elected to Congress in 2002, said he, too, thinks the 1994 ban was a mistake.

“I’m a firm believer in a second chance,” Van Hollen said. The experiment, he said, “is the right way to go.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), also mulling a Senate bid, joined the other Maryland lawmakers in Jessup to support the experiment.

There were no GOP lawmakers at Jessup on Friday. Prominent congressional Republicans were critical of the administration’s action.

“This may be a worthwhile idea for some prisoners, but the administration absolutely does not have the authority to do this without approval from Congress, because the Higher Education Act prohibits prisoners from receiving Pell Grants,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in a statement. “The Obama Administration should focus on the existing prisoner job training and re-entry programs through the Departments of Justice and Labor for which Congress provided nearly $300 million last year. Congress can address changes to Pell grants as part of the Senate education committee’s work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this fall.”

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said: “How we ensure the long-term sustainability of the Pell Grant program needs to be a national conversation, and as part of that conversation, we should discuss whether this aid can help incarcerated individuals become productive members of society. Unfortunately, the administration has chosen once again to stifle an important debate by acting unilaterally and without regard for the law.

“Right now, leaders in both the House and Senate are working to strengthen higher education by reforming the law. As I have said time and again, if the administration wants to see meaningful change take place, it must stop governing through executive fiat and start working with the people’s elected representatives in Congress.”

Correction: The photo caption in an earlier version of this item misidentified the congressman at the top center of the photograph. He is Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). This version has been corrected.