By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA – Washington edged closer Thursday to helping undocumented immigrants pay for college when leaders of the Republican-led Senate majority ended their opposition to allowing the students to receive state financial aid.
Legislation introduced Thursday by Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, would make students brought to this country illegally as children eligible for taxpayer-funded aid through the State Need Grant program. Senate Bill 6523 also adds $5 million into the program.
The Senate is expected to pass the measure Friday morning then send it to the House, which approved a nearly identical bill, referred to as the “Dream Act,” by a 71-23 margin on the opening day of the session.
The flurry of activity comes days after Bailey, the chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, told reporters this was not a top priority and seemed unlikely to be acted on this year.
She insisted then it was unfair to enlarge the pool of eligible students when roughly 30,000 students are already on a waiting list for grants.
But her mind changed when she secured funding for the bill, she said at a news conference Thursday.
“We have always been focused on fairness and funding,” she said. “No more false promises. If you want to open up state need grants to more students, then fund it. That’s what we do with this bill and we make college a reality for thousands of students.”
She did not know how many additional students could be served by the bill because the size of the grants varies by student. The House bill didn’t contain any funding.
Also critically important to Bailey is an apparent commitment in the two chambers to pass a bill allowing veterans and their family members to pay the lower in-state tuition rate regardless of how long they’ve lived in the state. The Senate will vote on it Friday and the House, which didn’t act on it in 2013, is expected to consider it this session.
News of the financial aid bill — which Republicans dub the “Real Hope” Act — spread quickly around the Capitol and incited praise for the Majority Coalition Caucus.
Ricardo Sanchez, chairman of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, joined Bailey and seven other caucus members at the announcement,
“We see Senate Bill 6523 as unlocking the hope and aspirations and improved academic achievement for many, many students,” he said. “It is an act of courage and compassion.”
Several Democratic senators signed on as sponsors of the bill.
“It is a critical piece of legislation for children in our schools who work hard and graduate from high school to have access to college,” said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell. “It will be a privilege if I have an opportunity to vote for the Dream Act.”
Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s made passage of such legislation a priority since taking office, thanked Senate leaders for “standing on the side of opportunity for all.”
“It is heartening that we now have a clear path to help more Washington students pursue their college dreams,” he said in a statement.
Republicans in both chambers still oppose the measure, even with the money.
“I don’t think my constituents will like this at all,” said Rep. Elizabeth Scott, R-Monroe, who voted against it in 2013 and again on the first day of the session.
“It is an unfunded, false promise to kids who are hoping to find a way to pay for college,” said Scott, who serves on the House Higher Education Committee. “They believe the money is there and it is not.”
Those additional dollars won’t pay for the roughly 32,000 citizen students eligible to receive a grant last year who did not get one, she said.
“Even if we change the requirements and allow this new pool of students to qualify, it doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily get the money, and that will lead to disappointment to these students and their families.”
But two students who spoke at the announcement didn’t express any concern as they delivered heartfelt thanks to the senators.
“We promise you we will make you proud,” said Dulce Siguenza, a community college student from Seattle.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org