In February of this year, President Bush released his budget proposal for fiscal year 2008. After suffering significant political set backs in the recent November 2006 mid-term elections, I had hoped that the president would recognize that after years of reckless tax cutting, chronic under funding of critical programs and record annual deficits, the American public wants a new direction for our country, particularly for our spending priorities. Sadly, the budget proposed by President Bush this year continues to offer more of the same misguided priorities, especially for education spending.

As a former member of the Budget Committee, I know how challenging it is to craft a budget that is both fiscally and morally responsible. Like any family, the federal government must set priorities for spending and stick to a budget. Yet, while many of us must make hard choices to live within our means, the president’s budget makes the wrong choices. His budget lacks adequate funding for vital programs dealing with Homeland Security, veterans and military retirees, health care and education. Yet, he continues to call for irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthiest among us.

Fortunately, this year there’s a new Congress in town! During the campaign this fall, congressional Democrats pledged to make legislation helping our children and our young people our top priority. And I am proud to report that we are delivering on that promise.

I was so pleased that one of the very first acts of the new Democratic-led Congress was to make college more affordable for students and their families by cutting the interest rates on student loans. At UCSB, the average student borrower has over $15,000 in student loans when they graduate. Our bill will help these students save over $5,000 over the life of their loan. This legislation is a good first step in making sure that a higher education is accessible and affordable for all of our students.

Beyond this legislation, the Democratic-led House passed a vastly improved budget last Thursday that increases funding for education by $3 billion over current levels. With this increase, congressional Democrats put their money where their mouth is and addressed the inadequate education funding initially proposed by the Bush Administration.

Our budget includes a long overdue increase in Pell Grants to at least $4,600 this year. This critical increase comes at a time when Pell Grants have been frozen at $4,050 since 2001 while tuition and fees at public universities have increased by 41 percent after inflation and tuition and fees at private universities have jumped by 17 percent after inflation. As the cost of higher education has risen sharply over the years, Pell Grants have failed to keep pace, making it increasingly difficult for students and their families to make ends meet.

In addition to lowering the cost of student loans and increasing Pell Grants, I’m working with my colleagues in Congress to pass the Student Aid Reward Act, a bill that would encourage colleges and universities to utilize the Federal Direct Loan program instead of the Federal Family Education Loan program. The Federal Direct Loans are less expensive and would save the federal government billions of dollars, which could then be reinvested into higher education.

Finally, we need to restore funding for critical outreach programs such as TRIO and GEARUP -Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs and ensure that student loan repayments are reasonable. While we have made some remarkable progress in our efforts to fully fund higher education and make it accessible for all our students, more work remains.

I’ll keep working to make education funding a priority in Congress, but I need your help. I encourage UCSB students to get involved and make their voices heard on this issue. Together, we can advocate for more funding for education programs, ensuring that generations of UCSB students continue to receive a quality education.

Please start today by joining me and student body representatives at a press conference in front of the UCen at 12:00 pm to discuss the need for additional funding for higher education.