Earlier this week, the Senate thwarted the District's bid for voting rights in Congress. Now, city officials are conceding that they cannot stop a senator from forcing a change they oppose in a D.C. college tuition assistance program.

Officials said yesterday that they are upset about an effort by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to create an income test for participation in the program but that they can't risk losing the entire program by fighting him.

In 2000, the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program began providing financial aid to college-bound city residents, regardless of income, at all public and some private schools in the country.

Because the District lacks a state university system and has only one public college, Congress decided that city residents should have the same opportunities to attend college as other Americans. Each state has a public higher-education system that costs less for its residents.

But Coburn decided that he wanted to bar families earning more than $1 million from participating in the program, which elected city officials said was contrary to a key purpose of the program.

"If you are Bill Gates, who lives in the state of Washington, your kids can go the University of Washington at in-state tuition rates," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), referring to the billionaire who founded Microsoft. "Our kids should have the same opportunities as other Americans."

Under the program, D.C. residents attending any state university are eligible for up to $10,000 a year, with a limit of $50,000. Those attending private schools in Maryland and Virginia, as well as historically black colleges, are eligible for grants of $2,500 a year with a $12,500 cap.

More than 26,000 grants have been disbursed to nearly 10,000 students since the program began, at a cost of about $141 million. Sixty-eight percent of recipients have come from families with low or very low incomes. Thirty-eight percent have been the first in their family to attend college.
College attendance by city residents has increased more than 50 percent under the program, and President Bush has increased funding for it every year, Norton said.

Created to give D.C. residents more opportunities for higher education while providing an incentive to stay in the city, the program was to expire this year. The House passed its version of a bill in May to extend the program through 2012, without an income cap, drawing support from 98 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans.

But Coburn, operating under Senate rules that allow a single senator to block legislation, held up the bill until he could win approval from congressional leaders to add his amendment about income.

Fearing that the program would run out of funding, Democrats agreed to put Coburn's income amendment into the Senate bill, Norton and other officials said. It passed unanimously Tuesday.

Coburn spokesman John Hart said that the senator thinks people making more than $1 million don't need federal help. "Every dollar that goes to millionaire families is a dollar that's not available to lower-income families," Hart said.

The Senate vote on the tuition program occurred on the same day that Republicans blocked what many had considered to be the District's best chance in years to achieve full voting rights.

"These people in Congress, don't they have anything better to do?" asked Iris Toyer, co-chairman of the education advocacy group Parents United for the D.C. Schools. "I feel like, 'Attack us every way you can at this point.' "

Although the two bills have to be reconciled, Coburn has threatened to hold up the compromise bill if attempts are made to remove the income provision. Democrats have decided not to fight it anymore, Norton and others said.

"This undercuts the major reasons for the program, but we were left with no choices," she said, adding that the program will run out of money if new funds are not authorized soon. Then, she said, "everybody gets hurt."

Norton said she thinks that about 20 families could be affected by the change. Toyer said the number of people affected is certain to grow into the hundreds in coming years.

The D.C. government has no mechanism to determine the family income of program applicants, but Deborah Gist, the head of the State Education Office that oversees the tuition assistance program, said she would work to create one.

"While the original intent of the program was designed to include all eligible District residents regardless of income, I am confident that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education will meet the new requirements of the program," she said.

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