New Political Leadership

Article excerpt

No one could ever accuse Congressman Chaka Fattah of being timid about taking risks.

This charismatic and affable forty-year-old Philadelphia native has built a career on beating the political odds.

Earlier this year, Fattah introduced legislation entitled the "21st Century Scholars Act of 1997." The legislation, designated H.R. 777, would target kids in areas of 75 percent poverty or greater. The bill would require the federal government to notify sixth graders from designated areas that they are guaranteed four years of the maximum Pell grant award for their postsecondary education. The goal of the program is to motivate low-income students to complete their education since participants can only take advantage of Pell grants if they graduate from high school.

"Right now, it's important to help position these students, and get them well prepared so they can go on to college and other postsecondary institutions," says Fattah, a former Pell Grant recipient.

The 21st Century Scholars Program is modeled after private ventures, such as the "I Have a Dream" program created by millionaire Eugene Lang. In 1981, Lang promised full college tuition to a class of sixth graders at his old elementary school in East Harlem. Ninety percent of the class earned high school diplomas - compared to a 25 percent projection that would have gone to college without a tuition guarantee. Sixty percent of the East Harlem class went on to college.

Fattah says there are a number of similar programs at work in his Philadelphia district. He believes the track record of these private programs has demonstrated they can work at the federal level.

"We observe that students who receive advance notification that their college will be paid for make different decisions about their lives, and are far more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college," Fattah says.

The Congressman notes that students from low-income families rely upon federal grants more than their higher income counterparts. Federal grants fund an average of 25 percent of postsecondary tuition for low-income students compared to 2 percent for middle income students and just 0.2 percent of high-income students, he says.

Another important component of the proposal is that students who have been notified of their Pell grant eligibility would become eligible to enroll in federal TRIO programs. Critics of the proposal, however, say that TRIO programs serve only 10 percent of those who are currently eligible and they would have to be greatly expanded to accommodate students in the 21st Century Scholars Program.

Gaining Congressional Support

Over the past several months, the Scholars proposal has attracted bipartisan support in the Congress. At least ten congressional Republicans are supporting H.R. 777 as co-sponsors of the legislation. U.S. Representative Major Owens (D-N.Y.) says Fattah's bill is generating support atypical for Democratic initiatives.

"He's gotten the attention of Republicans with his proposal," Owens says.

Fattah is seeking to have his bill enacted as an amendment to the Higher Education Act (HEA), which is being reauthorized this fall. If the bill is not incorporated as an amendment to the HEA, Fattah says he is optimistic that it will pass the Congress as a stand-alone bill. By late September, more than one hundred representatives had signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, according to Fattah's Washington office.

National higher education organizations have expressed their support for the bill as well. Erica Adelsheimer, legislative director of the United States Student Association, says she thinks the program would "be effective in convincing students that getting a college education is possible....

"One of our complaints with the Department of Education is that it does not make it easy to get information on student financial aid, especially for families that most need it," Adelsheimer adds. …