Politics & Government

Vets could fall victim to education stalemate

A fight between Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature over higher education is setting up what could be a stalemate between the two houses, pitting the needs of veterans against those of immigrant students.

Republicans in the Senate are pushing to eliminate the one-year waiting period for veterans and active-duty military members to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill to fund in-state tuition, while Democrats in the House want to extend access to the state need grant to students brought to the country illegally as young children.

“We need to keep our promises and commitments to our veterans,” state Sen. Randi Becker said Tuesday while responding to Gov. Jay Inslee’s State of the State speech in which he pitched financial aid for students who are not legal residents.

“We need to extend in-state tuition rates to those that join the military in another state so that their GI Bill can cover tuition in a way it was designed,” said Becker, R-Eatonville, speaking on behalf of the mostly Republican Senate majority.

Under current law, retired and active-duty service members must wait one year after moving or returning to Washington state to qualify for in-state tuition at state universities and colleges. Sen. Barbara Bailey, a Republican from Oak Harbor, wants to change that.

Bailey recently reintroduced legislation that would eliminate the one-year waiting period.

As it currently stands, the GI Bill covers the cost of in-state tuition for military students and veterans. But if students don’t meet state residency requirements, they must pay the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition, which can be thousands of dollars.

State analysts estimate that about 110 veterans currently enrolled at state schools are paying out-of-state tuition.

“There’ve been a couple of cases when a veteran went to school, used the GI Bill and got a bill from the college,” Bailey said. “This is not the right way to handle our returning veterans who want to go to school here, live here, and have their families here.”

Meanwhile, the House is focused on helping another group of college students.

In a rare move last Monday, the House passed legislation on the first day of session that would allow students living in the country illegally to apply for the state need grant. Students would be eligible if they have graduated or will graduate from a Washington state high school and arrived in the United States prior to their 16th birthday.

House Bill 1817, which supporters call the Dream Act, passed out of the House last year, yet failed to make it onto the floor of the Senate.

Rep. Zack Hudgins, a Democrat from Tukwila and the original sponsor of the Dream Act, said the legislation is imperative to allow all children equal opportunity to higher education.

“That’s all this is: the opportunity to compete,” Hudgins said. “This isn’t a giveaway.”

During his opening-day remarks in the House, Speaker Frank Chopp emphasized the importance of supporting all of the state’s college students, regardless of their legal status.

“In our state constitution, we are called upon to provide an education to all students who reside in our state,” Chopp told House members.

Bailey, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education committee where the Dream Act would be heard, told reporters that she will not bring the legislation up for a hearing this legislative session. Part of her objection to the bill has to do with the unmet demand the state need grant program already faces. More than 32,000 eligible college students don’t receive any money due to a lack of funding. Bailey argues that allowing immigrant students access to state need grant funds would further add to the disparity.

“These students already qualify for in-state tuition, our veterans do not,” Bailey said. “We need to find a way to make college education affordable for all … broadening that pool and giving a false promise is not a fair way to handle this issue.”

Both bills also stalled last year due to “partisan conflict over priorities,” said Jim Sims of the Veterans Legislative Coalition.