If there’s an argument against giving Pell grants to prisoners that particularly galls Education Secretary Arne Duncan, it’s the suggestion by some Republicans that the Obama administration is taking money intended for hard-working students and giving it to criminals.
“Having an inmate receive Pell grants doesn’t take a nickel from anybody else,” Duncan told me in a phone interview on Wednesday. “This never pits one group over another, and it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s just trying to have a few more people have access to what could be a life-chance-forming opportunity.”
Last week, alongside Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Duncan appeared at a prison in Maryland to announce the launch of a pilot program that would make a limited number of inmates eligible for federal college aid while they’re still in jail. Congress banned Pell grants for prisoners in 1994, but the administration is relying on a provision of the Higher Education Act to resume the practice on a trial basis. The idea—backed by a 2013 Rand Corporation study that found prisoner education is a cost-effective way to reduce recidivism—is one that has bipartisan support.
Yet the Obama administration is clearly taking a risk by launching the pilot program now, without waiting for full congressional approval that could come through the passage of criminal-justice reform, which has gained momentum on Capitol Hill in recent months. Already, some Republicans are accusing the administration of going around the law—an argument that Duncan similarly dismissed. “I think waiting on Congress is almost never a good bet,” the secretary said with a chuckle. He knows from experience. Duncan is one of two Cabinet officers (along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) who have served for the entire Obama presidency, and he has been waiting six and a half years for Congress to overhaul the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. (In the face of congressional inaction, the administration has exempted most states from many of its key requirements.)