Dona: Last week, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held one hearing and two Subcommittees held a hearing each. C.I. covered them in "Iraq snapshot," "Iraq snapshot" and "Iraq snapshot." Wally, Kat and Ava were at the hearings as well -- Ava at one, Wally at all three, Kat at one. This feature became a must this week because C.I. had a ton to tackle from the Tuesday full Committee hearing and so she moved one to here because it was a topic we were discussing in last week's "Congress and Veterans." You can read that in full but the issue C.I. and I were discussing was the Post-9/11 GI Education Bill and how certain schools would not be part of it as a result of a bill Senator Jim Webb's proposed and also as a result of an attitude. C.I. noted that under the current law and the bill proposed, legendary film actor Steve McQueen would not have been able to train at The Actors Studio or elsewhere as he was able to after he was discharged from the Marines. The emphasis was instead on degrees and on bachelors. Tuesday, in the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, acting Chair Gus Bilirakis raised the issue of other legislation and how it was effecting education.
Acting Chair Gus Bilirakis: Also I want to bring in an additional detail to the VA witnesses. Last week, chancellor of the Florida college system informed the Committee staff that VA has determined that 23 of the 28 Florida community colleges would not qualify to provide training under the VRAP program that was part of the Vow To Hire Heroes Act that was passed last November. The reason given for this denial is that each of the 23 community colleges awards a very limited number of bachelor degrees most often in technical or healthcare fields such as bachelor's degrees in nursing. It is clear to me that VA is ignoring the traditional community focus approach those schools continue to offer. Unlike four year schools that offer bachelor and higher degrees generally without regard to the local needs, these schools continue to provide education.and training that reflect what their surrounding communities need. In fact, using VA's narrow definition of community college, if a school awarded one bachelor's degree, along with hundreds or even thousands of associates degrees, that school would not qualify for VRAP training. It is like saying, this analogy, that a bank that offers coffee to patrons is no longer a bank and is now a Starbucks. This issue is not limited to the state of Florida. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 64 of their members in Florida, Nevada, Georgia, Texas, North and South Dakota, Puerto Rico, Arizona, Utah, Kansas, Wisconsin, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Vermont, Indiana and Washington award -- or are authorized to award -- limited numbers of bachelor degrees.
Dona: Like Wally, Bilirakis hails from Florida. Wally, your thoughts?
Wally: Honestly surprised to learn any community college gives out a bachelor degree. I thought associates were the norm for community colleges. I was also surprised we only have 28 community colleges in Florida because I thought they were all over. I guess that's just in the big cities in Florida. As you pointed out, this goes back to the point C.I. was making about what's being valued and what isn't. And maybe people need to be asking what happened to the choice of the veteran?
Dona: Ava, some background?
Ava: VRAP is the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program. It's a program that covers 12 months of training. If someone drops out of the program, as Senator Richard Burr has observed, the slot remains vacant. No one is plugged into it. Meaning that the 54,000 people in the program set to kick off October 1st are in the program and if they drop out for any reason, those slots are empty.
Dona: C.I., you noted you agreed with Bilirakis, in the snapshot, you wrote that.
C.I.: And I do. He's correct. This should not be happening. We've gone from trades not being good enough to now associate degrees aren't good enough. What is the point of this program? I thought it was to serve veterans. But I don't see how when their needs and interests aren't being served but someone else's are.
Dona: Kat, any thoughts?
Kat: Yeah, I'm glad that we're revisting this because it makes much more sense now. I understood the McQueen analogy last week but sitting in that hearing Tuesday, I sort of thought, "What?" And excuse me but why is a four year degree needed? Not just, who need it to work but why is it needed for the VRAP program? A bachelor's degree is a four year degree. This is a 12 month program, as Ava just noted. VRAP is 12 month programming.
Wally: I just don't like the idea that somebody's deciding this beside the veteran. Yeah, no one wants anyone ripped off. But I think you give some education counseling and then you trust that the veteran will make their own decision.
Ava: You will trust this person with a gun, you will train them to kill but you don't trust them to make their own education choices?
Wally: And a trade or a craft is just as valuable as something that requires a four-year degree, especially if it's what the veteran wants. Kat's point, by the way, about this is a 12-month program, VRAP, and we're hearing from Bilirakis that they're disqualifying those not doing the bachelor programs, I agree what's going on there? It makes no sense.
Dona: To turn to another big topic from the hearing, the backlog. Ranking Member Bob Filner will get a "truest" with his statements about the backlog but what do you think about that?
Kat: It's just really frustrating to sit in these hearings and hear over and over that we're working on it and next year it'll be fixed and next year comes and it's the same song-and-dance. I almost laughed -- not at Filner but with him -- when he wasn't in the mood to put up with the VA witnesess' nonsense.
C.I.: Alison Hickey.
Dona: Let's include that exchange.
Dona (Con't): What was that like? Was it tense?
Ava: I didn't get that impression. I saw a few nodding and smiling.
Dona: Not Hickey, I assume.
Wally: No. She wasn't happy. Her voice got pointed near the end of that exchange.
Dona: What effect, if any, do you think it had?
C.I.: I think it puts the VA on notice. I think it puts Hickey on notice. Don't show up in 2013 with this same sad story. No one wants to hear it. The excuses are tired and have been used over and over. If I were Hickey, I'd be damned sure not to attempt to face Filner again with an excuse as to why I haven't completed the task.
Dona: Which would be great but, as Kat's repeatedly noted in the last two years, these excuses from the VA just don't go away. This is a rush transcript and we'll continue to cover these stories.