U.S. Sen. Barack Obama Joins Education Committee: Appointment Provides Forum for Possible Presidential Candidate to Talk about One of His Chief Priorities

Article excerpt

The Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate promises to bring student aid issues to the forefront and to give Blacks a stronger voice, especially now that U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is set to join that chamber's education panel.

By winning a narrow majority in the November midterm elections, Democrats earn more seats on all Senate panels, including the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. As a result, Obama will join the panel along with U.S. Sen.-Elect Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. Democrats will also assign a third new seat to U.S. Sen.-Elect Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., an independent who plans to work closely with the Democrats. U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., incoming chair of the Senate education panel, announced Obama's appointment in a mid-November briefing in which he also unveiled plans to focus on Pell Grants and student loan reform.

"Today, students and families are pinching every penny to save for college, and it's not enough" Kennedy said. "With the House and Senate under new management, next year we will provide needed help to families struggling to put their children through college."

Kennedy said Senate Democrats will push for at least four reforms, including cutting loan interest rates and capping loan repayments at no more than 15 percent of a student's annual income.

"We will reform the student loan program so it works for students and not just the banks;' Kennedy said.

For Obama, the appointment to the education panel will provide a forum for the first-term senator and possible presidential candidate to talk about one of his chief priorities.

The first bill Obama introduced after joining the Senate was the plan to expand the maximum Pell Grant from $4,050 to $5,100. In proposing his Higher Education Opportunity through Pell Grant Expansion, or HOPE Act, Obama noted that Pell typically covers only 23 percent of college costs, down significantly from two decades ago.

From his new post, Obama may also find more support for his K-12 education reform plan to create "innovation districts" or school districts that get special funds and technical assistance to experiment with new ideas. His plan would create 20 such districts, with a focus on teaching and achievement.

Obama said in a statement that he hopes to "focus on legislation that will help working families adjust to the ever-changing global economy. …