Drug offenses should not affect education

When House members approved a higher education bill last week, they signed off many students from a chance to learn. Before amendments to the Higher Education Act pass through the Senate and President Clinton signs it, efforts to better protect students who risk losing government aid must be a priority. The most off-base measure in the current bill denies students convicted of drug offenses from receiving federal aid. But such a proposal misses the point of what improving access to education is all about.
Last Wednesday, the House passed its version of the Higher Education Act, which defines how federal student financial aid programs and other government assistance will be funded through fiscal year 2003. The proposed bill would drop interest rates on student loans by 0.3 percent. The House continued crackdowns on loans when it passed a bill that would bar colleges with high default rates from receiving grants and loans. Because community colleges have a large number of students who default on their loans, such institutions would likely suffer the most. Consequently, students who don’t receive federal assistance might be prevented from attending college.
But the most striking backlash to educational access is the proposal to ban those convicted of drug offenses from receiving financial aid. The amendment, introduced by conservative Republicans, would prevent everything from grants, loans to work assistance from being distributed. For drug possession, offenders would be ineligible for federal aid for up to one year. A second offense would result in a two-year federal assistance ban. Someone who gets a third conviction would be permanently banned from getting government aid. But for others convicted of selling illegal drugs, stricter penalties are proposed.
The measure against drug offenders is expected to be approved when it goes before the Senate in upcoming weeks. A section of the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, also slated to go before the Senate for a vote, holds the same language as the education act. If the Senate passes the education bill and sends it to Clinton, the president represents the last hope in remembering the federal government’s role in education. Depriving an education to those who participate in illegal or socially-condemned practices is not the role of the government. If that were the case, sponsors of the bill must address why alcohol-related offenses are not part of the amendment. An alcohol-related riot near Washington State University earlier this month that led police to use tear gas and water hoses shows that something else besides drugs might cause a bigger disturbance to school atmospheres.
So far, Clinton has given no indication whether he will use his line-item veto power to dismiss the drug amendment. Clinton has already commented about other provisions in the education bill. He threatened to veto the proposal on loan interests, which he said was too easy on banks. But the president has yet to publicly address the drug legislation in which he so far seems impartial. When doing so, Clinton needs to use his line-item veto power to dismiss the measure. In doing this, he will give the message that the Higher Education Act will not compromise educational access to political interests.