Community colleges missed a big opportunity with the healthcare reform bill. As an NPR story by Alan Greenblatt noted, in failing to provide money to support Barack Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, Congress missed the opportunity to make colleges work better:

The health reconciliation bill that passed Thursday included major changes in higher education policy, but Congress ultimately took a pass on restructuring the mission of the nation’s community colleges.

“It was the best chance — really since the GI Bill — for a game-changing federal initiative in higher education generally, and community colleges specifically,” says Christopher Cabaldon, who runs a community college project at the New America Foundation.

Its failure is about more than a missed policy change, however. The story of a White House initiative that had the support of key members of Congress but couldn’t make it into law offers an object lesson in how Washington really works.

Obama first proposed $12 billion for community colleges, but in the process of hammering out a budget that figure was reduced, and reduced again, until eventually there was only $2 billion for community colleges. That’s still a lot of money, but it’s not enough to make community colleges operate differently.

To some extent this reduction is a natural part of the federal budget process. To others, though, it’s a sign of the weakness of community colleges, and of their low regard. According to the article: “We do not have a strong voice in Washington to lobby for us,” says Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College in New York. “This was a wake-up call.”

A wake-up call to do what, though? The $12 billion was supposed to dramatically modify community colleges, not reward them for a great job. It’s understandable if the lesson community colleges got from this process was that they need a stronger lobby. But that’s probably not the recipe for good policy on community colleges.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer