Con Ed

Those words exhilarated Johnson. “This is probably the most significant support for community colleges that I’ve ever seen come out of any White House administration,” he gushed to the local newspaper that night. Dayton, like many industrial cities, has been especially hard hit by job losses during the Bush years. And community colleges like his–which educate half of all post-secondary students in America–are ideally suited to the task of easing the burden of unemployment. In addition to providing low-cost college education to recent high school graduates, community colleges have become the default retraining system of the new economy. Every year, they help millions of adult workers who have lost employment in industries such as manufacturing or IT to retool for the jobs being created in such fields as nursing and accounting. Moreover, many economically hard-hit cities like Dayton are located in the key swing states that will likely determine the winner of this November’s election. And thus Bush’s proposal to boost money for community colleges would seem to be both good policy and good politics.

Except for one thing: Bush isn’t actually trying to boost community college funding. He’s trying to cut it. A careful look at the specifics of the administration’s 2005 budget reveals that while the president has proposed a quarter of a billion dollars for the program he promised in the State of the Union address, he has simultaneously stripped away an even larger sum from other programs that support community colleges. On balance, under Bush’s budget, community colleges will be worse off next year than they are now.

This shell game is all too typical of the way the Bush administration plays with the domestic policy budget. In his 2002 State of the Union address, the president promised to expand AmeriCorps funding by 50 percent. He then signed a budget that cut the program in half. Late last year, after sparking wild celebration in the space exploration community by authorizing a manned mission to Mars, the president included only $1 billion extra in NASA’s budget to accomplish the mission–about one-thousandth the amount that ultimately will be needed. Recently, as The New York Times‘ Robert Pear has noted, Bush cabinet officials have been fanning out across key battleground states to tout grant awards in programs that the administration intends, in fact, to cut–from money for defibrillators to save the lives of heart-attack victims (proposed budget decrease: 82 percent) to subsidies to help police departments hire more cops (proposed budget decrease: 87 percent). And early drafts of the president’s 2006 budget indicate he will slash domestic spending for all agencies.

There seems to be a pattern here. First, the president enters traditionally Democratic territory with rhetorical compassion, pushing new spending to meet domestic social needs. Second, while keeping up the rhetoric of change, he fails to put up the funding needed to implement that change, or quietly slashes the funding. Of course, Bush didn’t invent the idea of using poll-tested, small-bore spending initiatives to win over swing voters. That was a Bill Clinton innovation. The difference is that, unlike Clinton, Bush only pretends that there’s any money behind his proposals.

Downtown Dayton is a desolate place. Even in the middle of a business day, the streets are as deserted as more affluent cities’ financial districts are on Sunday mornings. The metro area has lost more than 17,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office–more than 20 percent of its total job base. For those laid off from the automotive factories and other local manufacturers, there is still some hope. If they venture to the Job Center, a public-private career services center located just south of the heart of downtown Dayton, they will find a computer-based job-listing service with 1,500 new entries in its database. But fewer than half of the jobs listed are available to people without an associate or bachelor’s degree–and fewer than a fifth of Dayton residents have such degrees.

Dayton has several institutions of higher education that could conceivably help residents cross this gap. The city is home to both the University of Dayton and Wright State University. But yearly tuition is nearly $20,000 at the University of Dayton. At Wright State, it’s $4,800. Those are steep prices for many prospective working-class students, even with college aid. That’s why so many are drawn to Sinclair Community College, where annual tuition is only $1,700. Located just off I-75, in the center of Dayton, Sinclair is one of the nation’s largest community colleges. The campus–stark concrete blocks punctuated with deep recesses of black glass, all arranged around vast brick plazas–serves 24,000 students.

Dollar for dollar, it’s hard to imagine a better way for Washington to fight unemployment, and underemployment, than to boost federal subsidies for community colleges. That’s precisely what the Clinton administration did. In the 1990s, federal grants to community colleges grew by 20 percent in real terms, while overall federal student aid spending rose by half. Partly as a result, enrollment at community colleges and at 4-year universities burgeoned.

In the last few years, as tuition at 4-year colleges has climbed by 20 percent, community colleges have taken on even more students. Between 2001 and 2003, while enrollment at public 4-year colleges increased by 7 percent, enrollment at community colleges climbed 14 percent. Part of the growth has come from unemployed workers looking for new skills; as the job market improves, part of the wave might subside. But overall, enrollment at community colleges is destined to rise for several more years, thanks to the “echo boom”: the children of baby boomers who are now swelling high school classes.

The trouble is that just as this tidal wave of students is hitting community colleges, the state and local governments that provide the bulk of aid to these schools have been hit by a massive budget squeeze. Funding from cash-starved states to community colleges has declined 13 percent in the last two years, and federal funding declined by a similar amount over the same period.

As a result, community colleges have had to turn away students for whom they have no classroom space or teachers. By Johnson’s estimate, Sinclair had to turn away 1,000 applicants last year. And while the problem has not been much reported (community colleges not being a topic that fires the imagination of newspaper editors), it’s national in scope. In California, community colleges did not have places for 175,000 prospective students last year; Florida turned away 30,000, and North Carolina 56,000.

In this situation, a major infusion of cash from Washington would make perfect sense. And at first glance, the president’s 2005 budget seems to do that, with a new $250-million grant program to community colleges. Look more carefully, however, and you’ll find a series of offsetting cuts to traditional federal supports for community colleges. $64 million is cut from the Workforce Investment Act, which funds “one-stop” career centers and job training services at community colleges. Another $316 million is cut from the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act–the biggest source of federal grants to community colleges. A provision to shift another $1 billion in Perkins grants to a new fund that will make more of that money available to high schools, meaning less for community colleges. Finally, the budget proposes, for the third year in a row, to make no increase in the amount the average community-college student can receive in Pell grants, the federal government’s main financial-aid program for low-income students, even as college tuitions continue to rise.

Add up all the cuts, and community colleges will probably be several hundred million dollars worse off under Bush’s 2005 budget. Even Emily Stover Derocco, the assistant secretary of the Department of Labor who will oversee Bush’s new $250 million grant, struggles to explain how the administration can claim to be helping community colleges in the face of these cuts. Her only defense is that the administration is “rethinking the very nature of vocational training.”

Of course, bureaucrats like Stover are driven to say such things by the larger fiscal situation that the administration has chosen to put itself in. After three rounds of tax cuts and a costly war in Iraq, there simply isn’t any money left in the federal budget for new initiatives, even for fairly modest things like community colleges–the kind of expenditures that might easily translate into votes in a key swing state. Yet rather than avoid making the promise at all, as a more cautious president might do, Bush continues, in his frequent trips to Ohio and other industrial states, to affirm his support for more spending on community college, even as his own budget officials attempt to cut it.

Such audacious claims have become the hallmark of Bush’s style. So far, neither the press nor the Kerry campaign has caught up with this particular one. But there is still time.