The Obama administration moved today to make state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell grants, reversing a two-decade-old policy that was a signature of the “tough on crime” era, Politico reports. The plan already has critics in Congress: A House bill introduced yesterday, the Kids Before Cons Act, would ban the Education Department from its plan to pilot the idea. “The administration absolutely does not have the authority to do this without approval from Congress,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate education committee, which is working to reauthorize the law Obama is bypassing. That law — the Higher Education Act — is where the Education Department found the authority to proceed with its pilot program. It allows the department to conduct limited “experiments” with federal financial aid waivers. The experimental site, dubbed the Second Chance Pell Pilot, will measure the effects of restoring access to Pell grants for prisoners, including whether it leads to jobs. It's not clear how much the project will cost or how many prisoners would benefit.
“For the money we currently spend on prison, we could provide universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old in America or double the salary of every high school teacher in the country,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “America is a nation of second chances. Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are — it can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers.” Meanwhile, former Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), a sponsor of the 1994 law ending Pell grants for prisoners, told the Washington Post that the ban was meant in part to ensure that federal money was not wasted on “sham schools” operating for profit inside prisons. Gordon knew the son of a Tennessee police officer who was unable to obtain a Pell grant. It seemed unfair to Gordon that the man couldn't get a Pell grant while inmates could. “This was not a 'beat-up' on criminals,” Gordon said. “This was an attempt to get better use of the limited amount of Pell grant money.”