Looking for Love on Capitol Hill

By Paul Bradley
Editor, Community College Week

On a dank and overcast Valentine’s Day, more than 800 community college leaders from around the country came to the nation’s Capitol looking for some love.
The occasion was the annual Community College National Legislative Summit, sponsored by the Association of Community College Trustees and the American Association of Community Colleges.
For college leaders, it was a chance to declare, clarify and share their legislative priorities with the second session of the 112th Congress: opposing further erosion of the federal Pell Grant program; helping community colleges respond to the growing need for education and job training; reauthorization and improvements of the Workforce Investment Act; and nearly a dozen other measures both arcane and practical.
The session came in the immediate aftermath of an announcement by President Obama that once again thrust community colleges into the national limelight.
Appearing on the campus of Northern Virginia Community College – the sixth time he has visited the campus since taking office – the president announced an $8 billion Community College to Career fund, designed to equip 2 million students with the skills they need to land jobs on growing high-tech fields. Those attending the summit were urged to tell their elected representatives to get behind the initiative.
“The president has once again opened the door wide, but it’s up to you to walk through that door,” said ACCT President and CEO J. Noah Brown.
But if community college leaders were giddy at the thought of multi-billions of dollars being pumped into their campuses, they were less sanguine about the prospects of it being passed in a politically polarized Capitol in an presidential election year. Said Laurie Quarles, an AACC legislative analyst: “There is a lot of pressure to cut spending this year. We need your help now, but we also need your help throughout the year.”
Quarles was part of a panel of AACC and ACCT staffers which outlined legislative priorities for the visiting trustees and coached them on how to advocate for their cause without alienating their congressional audience.
Some of the advice was disarmingly simple: be on time, be flexible, be brief; ask the congressmen about their own priorities; get a picture taken to show the folks back home.
Other recommendations delved deeper into the Washington way of doing things: don’t wade into contentious issues like taxing the rich; avoid topics like the future of Medicare; stick to what you know, community colleges and how they benefit communities and improve lives.
With that advice in hand, trustees braced for their trips to Capitol Hill, knowing that even on the day reserved for hearts and flowers, sometimes a battle must be joined.
For more information on the summit, visit http://www.acct.org.

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