Education as an Election Issue

United Negro College Fund president wants Pell Grants to be entitlement program

AMERICANS - conservative, liberal, moderate - all believe in education," says William Gray III, who resigned as the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives last year to become president of the United Negro College Fund.

In the history of the United States, there has never been a presidential candidate who was opposed to education. "Where the debate really lies in this country is what's the best way to promote educational opportunity," Mr. Gray says.

He sees both incumbent President Bush and Democratic challenger Gov. Bill Clinton as strongly supportive of education. But, he says, "they each come at it from a different point of view."

Gray is aware of Ross Perot's efforts to reform education in Texas, but the independent presidential candidate has "mainly talked about the economy," he says. The economy is the key issue in this year's campaign. Yet education consistently ranks among the top five issues of concern in voter polls. Education top priority

In a June survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, African-American voters named education as their No. 1 issue in the election.

"Clearly, a presidential candidate who can show the connection between an investment in education and economic growth will be someone who will be very appealing," Gray says. He is convinced that such a message would resonate this year with American voters.

Although education plays an important role in every national election, Gray argues that school issues are more critical to this country in the 1990s than they have been for the last three decades.

"Suddenly the prosperity of the rest of us may depend on how we educate the least of us," he says.

The reason for this, Gray argues, is a "demographic revolution" now taking place in the US. He cites the statistic that 85 percent of all new workers coming into the work force in the future are expected to be women, minorities, and new immigrants.

"America's prosperity, productivity, competitiveness, and wealth are going to depend on the competence and skill of people that today we call disadvantaged," Gray says.

"If we don't begin to provide wider doorways of opportunities for women, minorities, and new immigrants then we're not going to be a global power in the 21st century."

One of the major barriers to the education of these three groups is financial access. "In the 1980s we saw a tremendous decline in opportunities for low-income people," Gray says.

While college tuitions skyrocketed throughout the decade, the federal Pell Grant program that provides aid for low-income students shrank, he asserts.

"We saw the government student loan program, which is really a middle-class program, mushroom in the '80s," Gray says.

Many students now walk out of their commencement exercises staring $50,000 of debt in the face. "If you're poor, you don't tend to go out and borrow tens of thousands of dollars to go to college," Gray points out. "So to tell poor people that we've got this government student loan program doesn't correlate."

Governor Clinton has proposed a national tuition fund to replace the current student loan program. College students could pay back their debt through working in community-service jobs, such as teaching or police work.

Gray sees some potential in this idea. "We have to do something about the increasing indebtedness of American college students." Loan repayment problems

But, he cautions, Clinton's idea of working off student loans could be problematic. "We have that program in some aspects with regard to medical education. And we've had a lot of problems with people who take the money and promise to serve the medically underserved [in rural areas]," Gray explains.

"Then, after they get their degrees, they want to be located on the East side of New York, and they don't want to go down to East Mississippi."

Much of the current federal investment in education targets the middle-class, Gray argues. "That's politically understandable," he says. "Middle-class people vote. Poor people don't tend to vote."

Gray says he's not opposed to helping middle- and working-class families send their kids to college, but not at the exclusion of "people who don't have anything."

He favors making the Pell Grant program an entitlement.

"That's no different from what we did to make this country the economic colossus that it is," Gray says. "We took Georgia farm boys, New England fishermen, Midwestern farmers, Texas cattlepeople, and we gave them a government program called the GI Bill after World War II," he says.

"We sent eight million Americans to college who never would have gone. As a result, they became the business leaders, the engineers, the scientists, the doctors, and the teachers that we needed to make us into the post-World War II superpower that we have become."

"The real challenge," Gray says, "is how do we do that in the 21st century. We've got to remember how we did it before.... Now, I hope we don't have to have a war in order to provide a doorway to education. But I think we do need to provide a doorway."

The new global marketplace demands that the US take advantage of every human resource, Gray argues.

"Middle-class families need to recognize that they have to sacrifice too." That may mean a change in standard of living while children attend college. Family sacrifice

Gray remembers such sacrifice in his own family. "I had a mother who had two kids in college - my sister and myself. And for four years, my mother never had a new dress. That was a sacrifice she had to make. I'm not sure that we have that same kind of philosophy anymore."

"People sometimes want to send their kids to school and don't want their standard of living to change one iota. I don't think that's where government steps in. Where government steps in is making it possible for kids to go to school," Gray says.

In the end, presidents don't have much direct impact on education - particularly during the kindergarten to high school years, Gray says. Federal investment in the public schools is only about 6 percent of total funding and that's for distinct programs.

"Presidents do provide leadership; they form a consensus," Gray says. "Americans want a president who is strong on education, who is out there jawboning for education, and who is making an investment in education."

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