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Sacrificing Education

Vivek Rao

No more than a couple of months ago, President George W. Bush accused North Korean leaders of sacrificing basic needs such as food and education in order to finance the military. If this was in fact the central criticism that led Bush to claim North Korea as part of an “Axis of Evil,” then that line must now be extended through the White House.

The last week has seen the culmination of a debate in Washington over whether to cut government funding for college loans. Bush and his administration had suggested that federal student loans should no longer feature fixed interest rates, calling instead for variable rates that would result in greater costs to the low- and middle-income students eligible for such loans, but would free up upwards of $1.3 billion dollars in the federal budget.

On the surface, Bush’s argument may have seemed reasonable enough. After all, he claimed that the money made available by the proposed policy would mostly be given to the Pell Grants program, which directly contributes money toward the higher education of low-income students. That seems simple enough: take money from one group of needy students and give it to another. At least the government would still be funding education, right? Wrong.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the President’s proposal was that some White House spokesmen claimed that taxpayers should realize that if both the fixed interest rates on loans and the Pell program were to be maintained, it would result in an unnecessary additional cost of over a billion tax dollars. That is utter and complete nonsense, and Congress knew it. Most Democrats, and even a few Republicans, applied pressure on Bush to the point that he backed off from his plan. Even though the measure failed, the attitude and mindset behind it are rather disturbing.

The United States of America has always been a nation that has placed a high value on education. To develop intelligent, well-informed human beings capable of participating in and enhancing a democracy, education is essential. We pride ourselves on the easy availability of public education and the quality of our higher educational institutions, yet now the Oval Office is telling us that we need to choose between two very important and useful financial aid programs.

Two points of contention must be considered here, and the first is one that applies to virtually every one of Bush’s policies. By insisting on tax breaks and cuts that will do nothing more than help the nation’s elite get richer and more powerful, the President continues to sacrifice important programs. Maybe it’s not his fault. After all, he grew up in a well-to-do family, received the best education that money can buy, and had the path to a career in politics paved for him. What he no doubt sees in taxes is a menace intended to steal money from the wealthy, and of course, it is this same upper-class money that helps finance Bush’s campaigns and maintains his political machine. So the natural result is a strict budget that forces policymakers choose between key programs. In any government, sacrifices must be made in order to satisfy financial restrictions, but these days such sacrifices seem more frequent than at any point in recent memory.

The second problem is, logically, what is being sacrificed. Even a relatively tight spending limit, given efficient and sensible budget allocations, can succeed in financing most fundamental domestic policies and programs. Yet like his North Korean counterparts, Bush insists, like any good Republican, on pouring money into the military and foreign policy while neglecting some of the key issues plaguing our nation today, such as the lack of widespread medical coverage and the absurdly high cost of education.

If George W. Bush does indeed believe, as most Americans do, that education is a basic requisite for the strengthening of our nation, and that access to education is a fundamental right, then he should reevaluate his priorities. Both the Pell Grants and the concept of fixed interest on federal student loans are key ingredients to making college affordable for thousands of students every year. Compare that to a few extra missiles or fighter planes. Only when the President realizes that such a comparison is not even close and that the value of education outweighs the use of many other government expenditures can he start pointing fingers across the seas.