White House proposal to tap Pell Grant fund casts a pall over NASA’s moon plans

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, at left, discusses the plan to send astronauts to the moon by 2024 as three of his associate administrators — William Gerstenmaier, Jim Reuter and Thomas Zurbuchen — look on during a town hall at NASA headquarters. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

Will NASA’s plan to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 fly with Congress? The Artemis program’s implications are still sinking in on Capitol Hill, but there’s already a political problem having to do with where the money’s supposed to come from.

Trump administration officials confirmed that the $1.6 billion being sought as a “down payment” for accelerating the push to the moon would be taken from a roughly $8 billion reserve account for the popular Pell Grant program, which funds education for millions of low-income students annually.

Due to the economy’s rebound from the 2008-2009 Great Recession, the number of Pell Grant recipients has been declining in recent years, leading to a buildup in reserves. Because of that, taking money from the reserves would not affect current recipients, who will be receiving up to $6,195 for the 2019-2020 academic year..

“This does not cut any spending for Pell Grant programs as the budget continues to ensure all students will get their full Pell Grant and keeps the program on sound fiscal footing,” Office of Management and Budget spokesman Wesley Denton told The Associated Press in a statement.

However, that glosses over the fact that the carryover reserve is meant to buoy the Pell Grant program through hard times, and avoid the multibillion-dollar shortfalls that were experienced during the last recession.

And the White House aims to shift far more than the $1.6 billion. When other reallocations are taken into account, the proposed reallocation adds up to $3.9 billion, which is roughly half of the reserve.

Organizations such as the American Council on Education and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities were quick to register protests.

Jon Fansmith, director of government relations for the American Council on Education, told AP that depleting the reserve would “undercut the stability of a program that’s really critical for helping students afford college.” And in a letter to Senate and House education subcommittee leaders, the APLU said such a move would be “deeply misguided and contrary to the national interest.”

“Pell Grants help ensure we have a pipeline of talented students, many of whom will become the next generation of scientists and engineers who strengthen U.S. competitiveness in space and all other areas of scientific discovery and innovation,” APLU President Peter McPherson wrote.

Education advocacy groups aren’t the only ones registering their concern. The proposed funding shift is also getting thumbs-down from some members of the space community, including former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez …

I’m all for space travel and returning to the moon but not at the expense of education! If the Pell Grant money is a surplus how about increasing the size of grants so college grads don’t graduate with so much debt? @NASAedu @realDonaldTrump https://t.co/FiGh2Zl9M1

— Jose Hernandez (@Astro_Jose) May 14, 2019

… And Chris Lewicki, former president and CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources, who stayed on after an acquisition to co-found ConsenSys Space:

I was also the beneficiary of a Pell Grant, which directly led to me getting the education necessary to work at NASA. This is not a funding solution. https://t.co/2UrA30HTZp

— Chris Lewicki (@interplanetary) May 14, 2019

Does it have to be Artemis vs. Pell Grants? Not necessarily. As with every other budget proposal from the White House, this week’s supplemental budget requests are subject to the give-and-take of the legislative process. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former GOP congressman from Oklahoma, noted that today during a town-hall meeting at the space agency’s D.C. headquarters.

“The way the process works — and I know a little bit about it — is that the administration makes a proposal to Congress. But that’s what it is, it is a proposal,” Bridenstine said. “Then it’s over to Congress to say what they want to accept, what they don’t want to accept, what they want to ‘plus-up.’ ”

Congress is already talking about increasing the discretionary spending caps, which could accommodate NASA’s request while leaving the Pell Grants as is. Increasing the caps is the strong preference of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who’s the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (and one of the recipients of today’s letter from the APLU).

For what it’s worth, the House Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill last week that would boost the maximum Pell Grant award by $150 to try to keep pace with inflation. Even with that boost, the grants’ spending power has declined over the years to the point that it covers less than a third of the price of attending a typical four-year institution. Murray wants to remedy that by increasing spending on Pell Grants and other need-based aid programs for students.

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