Get REAL about education funding & education behind bars

By Elizabeth Douglas

Editors’ note: This piece contains both a powerful first-person narrative and important information about the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, H.R. 2168 in the House and S.1074 in the Senate, which could provide funding for education for literally hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Please read to the end to find out how you can support this important legislation.


Last week, the Education-Buster-in-Chief
announced that he wanted to “redirect $1.9 billion from a Pell Grant surplus to jumpstart other projects, primarily a NASA initiative to put astronauts back on the moon.” Pell Grants, in brief, are federal government aid for students who need financial assistance for college; and this budget request is not the first time Trump has tried to take away money from poor kids who rely on Pell Grants.

Poor kids like me. I was able to start my college career in large part because of the Pell Grant. The Bachelor’s degree that was mostly Pell Grant-funded provided the path to get my Master’s Degree, and this changed my life. I reflect back on the young woman I was then, determined to get an education, but with no viable means or way to get one. I was incredibly poor, despite 50-60 hour workweeks cobbled together from two different jobs. I had no family support: I left home the day I turned 18 due to several years of abuse from my parents, and became estranged from them for many years. No spousal support, either: I married far too early to someone who was essentially a leech, financially, emotionally, and physically (we later divorced). I was struggling to survive, and I was alone in this struggle.

I decided that I could only afford to take one year between high school and college to save up what little I could to make my education a reality. But that little didn’t cover it, so I applied for the Pell Grant – and got it. I still remember that moment I received my award letter as transcendently joyful and overwhelming. I shed many happy tears. I decided to enter the lowest cost but highest quality college that was close to where I lived; I couldn’t afford to move, and couldn’t afford more than two college application fees. I was lucky enough to be living close to a Junior College with ties to William and Mary in Virginia. The Pell Grant covered both my tuition – a steal at about $900 a semester back in the old-time days of early 2000 – and books for the year. I still had to work insane work hours just to live, but at least I didn’t have to worry about being unable to afford college.

My story is not so different from the millions of students (around 7.1 million, based on the data from 2016-2017) who now receive the Pell Grant. Except now, these students are facing more hurdles, such as the much wider gap between the cost of tuition and the limits of the Federal Pell Grant, as you can see from the chart below from The Pell Institute’s report Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States — 2018 Historical Trend Report. The cap for the 2019–20 award year is a very low $6,195, over fifteen thousand dollars below the average cost of full-time college enrollment – and as the graph shows, the average Pell award is only $3,740, and is likely to stay, thousands below even that low grant cap amount.

Pell Grant article Graph3b1

Thankfully, as in previous years, Congress rejected Trump’s moonshot heist by not giving him one cent of Pell Grant funds. Despite that win, there is an urgent need to protect Pell Grant recipients, and specifically one group of Pell Grant recipients that does not get enough attention: incarcerated individuals. There are no benevolent billionaires that are going to come to their rescue a la Robert F. Smith; no fairy godfather or godmother is stepping up to pay for their education. Yet getting a degree with the assistance of the Pell Grant is an essential way to change the lives of people behind bars and give them the opportunity to succeed and obtain employment post-release (see this Rand report for more details). According to the Department of Education, a recent study by the Vera Institute showed that “incarcerated individuals who participate in prison education programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who do not.”

On May 21, 2019, Betsy DeVos approved the expansion of the Obama administration’s Second Chance Pell Experiment (formally called the Second Chance Pell Pilot), allowing “up to 12,000 incarcerated individuals to receive Pell Grants in order to pursue a degree or credential.” But this is only a bandaid measure to right the wrongs of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA), a provision of which revoked Pell Grant funding “to any individual who is incarcerated in any federal or state penal institution.” Studies show that “if the ban on federal financial aid for inmates were lifted, about 463,000 prisoners would be eligible for a Pell Grant.”

Now, the bicameral and bipartisan Restoring Education and Learning Act (the REAL Act of 2019), H.R. 2168 in the House and S.1074 in the Senatepaves the way for exactly that. The House bill is already cosponsored by our own Representative Barbara Lee, and has a strong chance of succeeding since, as this NPR article points out, we are seeing a trend toward legislation that rejects the early 90s “tough on crime” era that led to prisoners’ rights to education being diminished in the first place. Our other Members of Congress haven’t signed on yet. If you want to help incarcerated individuals get an education, tell them: Get REAL, co-sponsor and support the REAL Act!

What you can do:

  • If your representative is Barbara Lee (email; 510-763-0370), thank her for cosponsoring H.R. 2168 – REAL Act of 2019.
  • If your representative is Eric Swalwell (email; 510-370-3322) or Mark DeSaulnier (email; 510-620-1000), ask them to cosponsor H.R. 2168 – REAL Act of 2019, and support equity in Pell Grant funding for incarcerated individuals.
  • Ask Senators Feinstein and Harris to cosponsor S. 1074 – REAL Act of 2019, and support equity in Pell Grant funding for incarcerated individuals.
    • Sen. Dianne Feinstein: (email); (415) 393-0707 • DC: (202) 224-3841
    • Sen. Kamala Harris: (email); (415) 981-9369 • DC: (202) 224-3553

 

Image: Equity Indicator graphic

Elizabeth Douglas is a mom, runner, and activist from Alameda. She is also a Climate Reality Leader (Seattle 2017) with a strong interest in protecting our ocean and corals.

 

Don’t Let DeVos Gut Title IX

Deadline for public comments: January 28, 2019 – 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed regulations that would modify the implementation of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. Well, let’s call it what it is – Betsy DeVos has proposed a scheme to destroy an important part of Title IX. We have a chance to say NO.

The proposed regs, which have the outrageously misleading title “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Sex in Education Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance” would gut Obama-era Title IX guidance for how schools address sexual violence. Among other changes, DeVos’s proposed regulations would specify how institutions covered by Title IX must respond to sexual harassment incidents, and would also revise the availability of remedies for violations. Hint: all the changes remove protections for women …

You have until Monday January 28 to protest the proposed changes by submitting a public comment. Go to this link and click the “COMMENT NOW” button in the upper right. If that doesn’t work, go to www.regulations.gov and click on “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Sex…” under “What’s Trending” and follow the instructions to submit a comment. Be sure to reference Docket ID No. Docket ID ED-2018-OCR-0064. See below for suggested language and alternative methods to submit comments.

What to write:

Here are some suggested comments (personalize the language because copied & pasted comments or overly similar comments may be grouped together and not counted separately). Several of these are adapted from the Equal Rights Advocates’ excellent comment guide. Submit your comments by the end of day January 28:

My name is _____ and I am [fill in relevant identifying info, if appropriate – such as teacher, student, advocate, sexual assault survivor, etc.] I am writing in reference to Docket ID ED-2018-OCR-0064.

I oppose the proposed regulations for the following reasons:

  • General:
    • They would allow schools to refuse to investigate online sexual harassment.
    • They provide for dramatically reduced liability for schools, allowing them to turn a blind eye to sexual assault or harassment and shielding them from responsibility if they ignore or cover up sexual misconduct.
    • They would drastically reduce the number of school employees responsible for addressing or reporting sexual harassment.
    • They would encourage schools to reinstate an antiquated mediation process rather than investigating.
    • They would narrow the definition of sexual harassment, requiring schools to investigate only the most “serious forms of harassment and assault,” and only act when the sexual violence or harassment completely denies a student access to education, forcing students to endure repeated and escalating levels of abuse without being able to ask their schools for help.
  • Duty to Report:
    • I am concerned about how the proposed regulations narrow which school employees are required to act on reports of sexual harassment and misconduct in higher education settings (§§ 106.44(a), 106.30), as well as the regulations’ requirement of schools to dismiss reports of sexual violence that happen between students off campus (§§ 106.30, 106.45(b)(3)).
    • These rules would not balance the scales of justice between student complainants and student respondents, but would rather result in students’ reports and complaints being dismissed or ignored, which will very likely decrease reporting overall.
  • Burden of Proof:
    • Proposed regulation 106.45(b)(4)(i) requires schools to apply the higher standard of evidence to Title IX cases – Clear and Convincing Evidence. Application of this standard of evidence is inequitable and impractical, and contradicts decades of legal practice.
    •  The Department fails to consider and address the grave consequences to the victim of sexual assault when compared to other crimes. It is unfair for the Department to apply a higher standard of evidence based on its conclusion that the consequences to the respondent are “grave” without consideration of the grave consequences to the victim, whom the provisions of Title IX were designed to protect.
    • Application of this higher standard is impractical and seems intentionally designed to reduce the overall number of findings of sexual assault.
  • Deadline for comment period:
    • Please extend the comment period for these regulations for a minimum of 60 days beyond the currently scheduled public comment deadline. The proposed 60-day comment period is insufficient to receive meaningful public participation in the rulemaking process.
    • Please schedule public hearings at schools and colleges campuses throughout the country to encourage additional input from students, teachers, administrators, and advocates.

For more information, read the Equal Rights Advocates’ article. Also, this letter from the National Women’s Law Center, joined by more than 100 groups and 200 individuals, points out that the proposed changes are extensive and far-reaching and would drastically alter students’ rights and affect almost every aspect of schools’ obligations to respond to sexual harassment against students, and requests that the Department of Education extend the brief comment period.

Graphic © Equal Rights Advocates