Submitted to the AFRO by Congressman Elijah Cummings

Here in Maryland, our legislature is currently working to increase state funding for public education in line with the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission. Our federal government must continue to be a committed and dependable partner in this process.

In the past, and today, the federal commitment to publicly funded educational opportunity has been both inadequate and uneven. This is a shortcoming that the Congress and President must eliminate.  

Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD.-7) . (Courtesy Photo)

I have often observed that the greatest long-term threat to our national security is our failure to adequately educate all of our people. This truth is most evident at the K-12 level, but the financial shortfalls in assuring that everyone can afford college or advanced technical training are equally compelling.

A strong public education – along with college scholarships – transformed my life, as well as the lives of  millions of other Americans of limited means.

Moreover, from the perspective of national policy, a world-class education, provided at a cost that does not demand decades of personal debt, is essential to the long-term sustainability of our society. We should all want – and demand – that the same transformative power be extended to every American.

Moving Forward with Federal K-12 Funding

Public funding of K-12 education has traditionally been a state and local responsibility.  Nevertheless, there are essential federal efforts to fund a better-educated society that deserve far greater support.

I was dismayed to learn that Federal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year does not call for full funding of Title I and IDEA. In fact, she proposes cutting another $7 billion from education programs, while adding $5 billion in tax credits for private school scholarships.

Along with others who are more far-sighted, I have a diametrically different viewpoint.

Both Title I, which provides federal support for schools that serve large numbers of low-income children, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which adds funding to educate special needs children, have been woefully underfunded since they became law in 1965 and 1975.

Over the past 15 years, the underfunding totals something like $686 billion – and these two foundational programs were underfunded by $52 billion in this year alone.

There is something desperately wrong with this picture, both from the view point of our morality as a nation and from the perspective of our long-term economic viability and national security.

There is no better investment for us as a people than funding a world-class education for everyone.

For example, The Keep Our PACT Act [the Keep Our Promise to America’s Children and Students Act  – S.1172 / H.R. 2315], sponsored in the United States Senate this year by Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen and co-sponsored by Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, among others, would increase funding levels for both programs over the next 10 years to reach full funding.

The companion legislation in the House of Representatives is H.R. 2315, sponsored by Nevada Congresswoman Susie Lee – and I am deeply gratified to be able to join Maryland Congressmen Jamie Raskin and David Trone, among others, in pushing for passage of this needed reform.

Helping All Americans to Pay for College

As I noted, federal higher education aid and scholarships allowed me to attain my own goals in life.  Helping everyone achieve the higher education that they need to survive and thrive is an essential step toward assuring that every American can participate fully in our 21st Century economy.

I have the honor of serving on the Board of Regents of Morgan State University, where we have been able to limit the increases in tuition and fees for Maryland residents in recent years. Although these costs at Morgan State are relatively affordable, when compared to other universities, they still are beyond the reach of too many deserving families.   

Despite our best efforts, we continue to witness some students leaving school before obtaining their degrees because they no longer can afford the cost. Each of these departures is a tragedy, both personally for me and for our community, a tragedy that we all should be doing everything in our power to avoid.

This is why we must continue to push for increased funding of the federal Pell Grants that are so essential to investing in our people.

I was deeply gratified last year when we in the Congress were able to increase the maximum Pell Grant to $6,195 – and I am convinced that, working together, we can make the dream of higher education available to all.

More than 7 million Americans will receive $27.5 billion in these Pell Grants during this academic year.  Yet, recent news reports have confirmed that more than $2.6 billion in Pell Grants went unclaimed this year – for the most part because prospective recipients were unaware of the process for receiving these awards.

This is why I host a free evening seminar each year that brings together financial aid experts, college representatives and prospective college students to learn how to pay for college while accumulating as little debt as possible.

A fully-educated America will also be a more prosperous and stable society. We can remain the world’s greatest nation – but only if we are willing to invest in educational opportunity for all.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.

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