Students vs. Congress – Rolling Stone
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Students vs. Congress

A new hard-line drug law causes thousands to lose their loans

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Copyright Jason E.Vines (jasonevines@gmail.com)/Getty

IN APRIL, ZACK GOLD, A TWENTY-YEAR-OLD University of Delaware junior, put on a jacket and tie and headed down to Washington, D.C., to do his part as an anti-Drug War activist. For more than an hour, he sat in the office of Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.), debating the 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act with Kara Haas, a Castle aide. The amendment prohibits any applicant with an adult drug conviction from receiving federal financial aid for at least a year, resulting in a potential loss of loans for an estimated 36,500 students this year. Gold argued that the new law singles out minorities and the poor. He encouraged Haas to persuade Castle, a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, to vote for its repeal. “At one point, it seemed she was running me in circles,” remembers Gold, who is currently the president of his university’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, “but she also saw my point and told me she’d discuss it with the congressman.”

In May, SSDP and reform group DRCNet presented their first scholarship, for $600, to one of the students affected by the law, twenty-three-year-old Kris Sperry. In February, Sperry was forced to drop out of Arkansas State University when he learned he was ineligible for financial aid because of previous convictions for marijuana possession. “It was a big slap in the face,” Sperry recalls. “I’d done my community service, paid my fines, and I was trying to do something good and get an education.” Though it was small, the SSDP scholarship enabled Sperry to return to Arkansas State, where he is studying for a B.A. in biology and elementary education.

This fall, Sperry will try to meet with his former representative, new Drug Enforcement Administration head Asa Hutchinson. “I want to tell him I’m outraged that they’d give financial aid to a violent criminal but not to me because I smoked marijuana,” says Sperry, noting that non-drug-related convictions do not preclude a student from receiving federal financial aid.

By petitioning committee members who supported the amendment to change their votes, SSDP hopes to achieve a big win when the HEA comes up for a reauthorization vote in the House Education and Workforce Committee in 2003 or 2004. This past spring, SSDP activists such as Gold approached congressmen at town halls or campus events, wrote letters and petitions, and visited them in their offices. As of August, more than thirty students had met with representatives or their staff members, and at least 1,500 had written letters. Brian Gralnick, a twenty-two-year-old senior at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., spoke with a legislative assistant in Rep. Joseph Hoeffel’s office in March. A month later, the Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania announced that he supported repealing the amendment. “It’s amazing how seriously people take you if you take yourself seriously,” says Shawn Heller, SSDP’s director.

There’s good reason for politicians to take SSDP, now in its third year, seriously. Since March, the number of campus SSDP chapters has doubled and is now at 140 nationwide. Sixty-six student governments have passed their own repeal resolutions, and many more are gearing up to do so this fall. Student activists are lopping off dreadlocks, pulling out piercings and donning suits to make sure they are taken seriously in Washington. Both the American Council on Education, which represents university presidents, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators oppose the law.

There are signs in Washington that even hard-line politicians like Hutchinson are starting to soften their stance on the HEA amendment. In an August interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hutchinson said he would support federal loans for drug offenders so that they could “get back to leading useful, productive lives.” In the House, Rep. Barney Frank’s bill to repeal the HEA amendment currently has fifty-four co-sponsors, including Rep. Connie Morella of Maryland, the first Republican co-sponsor, who came aboard in February.

Although this is encouraging news, the best chance to defeat the amendment is still in the Education and Workforce Committee. This spring, committee members Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) asked citizens to identify needless or overly burdensome HEA regulations so they could target them through a reform initiative called Fed. Up. They received hundreds of responses about the drug amendment. But if Fed. Up is not successful, there’s still the HEA reauthorization vote. “A goal for this fall is to get almost all of the Democrats and two of the Republicans on the committee to support repeal,” says Heller, who is also planning SSDP’s national conference and a protest march from the Capitol to the Department of Education in November.

Student lobbyists such as Irene Schwoeffermann know that convincing a majority of legislators won’t be easy. Last March, Schwoeffermann, then a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Portland State University, and six of her classmates went to Washington to meet with Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), who had voted against repeal. Schwoeffermann, who is African-American, was particularly interested in discussing the amendment’s disproportionate impact on minority students. “We talked about our concerns for maybe ten minutes, and then he got defensive and told us he was still going to vote against repeal,” she recalls. “We spent the rest of the time taking pictures.”

Although she was hoping for a better reception, Schwoeffermann doesn’t regret having taken the initiative to share her feelings on the HEA amendment with her congressman. “When you lobby you have to realize that you’re not always going to win,” she says. “But letting your representative know your views is a smaller type of victory.”

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