GEAR UP Government Relations Update


(this updated provided in part by NCCEP in Washington DC)

The last week has been incredibly busy on Capitol Hill. Congress passed a resolution to set the 2017 budget and decide funding levels for 2018-2026. This means that Congress wants to create a budget that won’t have to be approved by the Administration and help speed up the process of creating the budget. The primary target of budget discussions has been the Affordable Care Act and not education funding levels.

With the election of President Trump, we’ve been working hard to shore up support for GEAR UP among our Congressional stakeholders, while trying to acquaint the Trump transition team with the importance of the GEAR UP program to communities all over the nation. In December, we submitted a transition memo to key players on the incoming administration’s education transition team, including Robert Goad, who is widely expected to have a key role on the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.

This week, the Senate HELP committee held Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing for the role of Secretary of Education. The hearing was exceptionally partisan and short on policy specifics. Republicans came out in support for with DeVos’s general approach to increasing school choice, whereas Democrats questioned DeVos’s lack of approval through the ethics process, the amount of money she has donated to political campaigns, and her inexperience with the complexities of federal education policy. While her passion for low-income students certainly came through, much of the beltway chatter this morning is focused on her refusal to commit to not privatizing public school, her relative silence on some of the most pressing education issues of the day, and the need for her to be surrounded by a strong team while leading the Department of Education. There’s certainly enough votes on the Committee to approve her appointment, so we’ll be working hard with her and her team to ensure that GEAR UP remains a deeply valued program.

Finally, committee assignments are coming together in the House and the Senate. So far, in the House we know that Diane Black (WI) is likely to chair the House Budget Committee; Rodney Felinghuseng (NJ) will chair the House Appropriations Committee; Virginia Foxx (NC) will chair the House Committee on Education and the Workforce; Tom Cole (OK) will chair the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Service. In the Senate, Bernie Sanders (VT) will be the ranking member for the Senate Budget Committee; Patrick Leahy (VT) will be the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee; and Patty Murray (WA) will be the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. We are waiting to hear more from House Democrats and Senate Republicans on leadership assignments.

UPDATED 2/2/17

Yesterday, the Senate HELP Committee voted on Betsy DeVos’s nomination for U.S. Secretary of Education. With the public weighing in at an unprecedented level, DeVos was narrowly approved by the committee along a party-line vote (12 for and 11 against). While the nomination will make its way to the Senate floor, two Republicans who supported her in the committee have not committed to supporting her on the floor vote. This is becoming the most contested vote of all of the President’s cabinet nominees so far; Democrats only need three Republicans to vote “no” to succeed in blocking her appointment.

While this committee is somewhat unique in their bipartisan collaboration, Chairman Alexander’s (R-TN) refusal to postpone the vote to allow for deeper inquiry into DeVos’s ethics filing and questionnaire responses sparked an unusually strong rebuke from Ranking Member Patty Murry (D-WA). In addressing the Chairman, she said that the process has dramatically impacted their “ability to work together in good faith moving forward”.

As we shared in a previous Digest, we asked the Senate HELP committee to pose GEAR UP-related questions during DeVos’s hearing. While the hearing itself did not include many program-specific questions, a modified version of our questions were included in the follow-up questionnaire, which required the nominee to submit written responses to the committee.

The questions posed by committee members communicated that GEAR UP and TRIO enjoy “strong bipartisan support” and “play a critical role”. This is a crucial message for them to send to the potential Secretary, and we welcome their sentiment. However, her generic responses to the questions signal very little specifics about where she stands relative to the programs. To her suggestions that she will be “reviewing the effectiveness” and “strengthening” the programs if need be – that is a meeting that we are very eager to have. We have the evidence demonstrating that GEAR UP works and have a reauthorization package to make the program even better!

When given the opportunity, we have no doubt that the GEAR UP and TRIO communities will make an impassioned, evidence-driven case for expanding the modest federal investment in our students, families, and communities. We have included the pertinent questions and her answers below in full.

Senate HELP Committee Questions for DeVos Related to GEAR UP

Question #53 (P.38)
According to a recent report, racial gaps in college completion between white and African American and Hispanic students have widened significantly since 2007. At the same time, the face of the American college student is changing. Students from low income backgrounds, as well as older students and students with children, are increasingly enrolling in colleges across the country. Yet, retention and graduation rates are low for these students compared with so-called “traditional college” students.
  1. With 65 percent of jobs by 2020 requiring education beyond high school, how will you as Secretary help ensure that our historically disadvantaged students are able to access and complete college at a rate comparable to their white classmates, in order to ensure that students from all backgrounds have a fair shot of getting the jobs they need to be successful in a 21st century economy?
  2. Given that creating a highly skilled, competitive American workforce increasingly requires a college degree, what will you do to ensure that traditionally underserved students are able to enter and succeed in college?

ANSWER: The goal of the federal student aid programs is to ensure access to postsecondary education for traditionally underserved populations. These programs are supported by college access programs like TRIO and GEAR UP. If confirmed, I will review these and other programs to ensure they are operating as effectively as they can be. Should these programs need reform because they are not producing appropriate outcomes, I look forward to working with you and your colleagues to strengthen them during the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Question #87 (P.52)
The TRIO and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) are competitive grant programs that identify and seek to increase the number of low-income students who are successful in K-12 and higher education. These programs have strong bipartisan support and play a critical role in ensuring that promising students from low-income families have the resources and the community that they need to be successful. Do you think that students who face greater barriers to success in their education, such as the students who participate in TRIO/GEAR UP, need additional resources such as tutoring and financial assistance to be successful in K-12 and higher education? If so, do you think the federal government has any role in providing those services?

ANSWER: The Higher Education Act (HEA) has several programs designed to help underserved students gain access to higher education and be successful in their pursuits. If confirmed, I look forward to reviewing the effectiveness of these programs and working with you and your colleagues to strengthen programs with a demonstrated track record of success in the HEA reauthorization.

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Sean Brennan is Communications Director for California GEAR UP. CA GEAR UP is based out of Sacramento and Oakland California. Please visit our website for more information.

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