By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Speaking during a town hall meeting on the Miles College campus on Thursday, Alabama Senator Doug Jones discussed a number of issues that ranged from lowering student debt to maternal health.
He also took questions from students in the Reverend Abraham Woods Lecture Hall.
Jones, who is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), said a bill is being considered that would benefit students.
“We’re going to expand the number of folks eligible for Pell grants, we want to make sure we do the kind of things to get the right financial aid into the hands of students and that includes something I think is a no brainer, trying to simplify FAFSA,” said Jones. “We’ve got a bill pending that will reduce that application to about 25 questions. It will be able to cross reference with other government information like tax returns and things to try to get all of that together and I think that will help.”
Federal Pell Grants are awarded only to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and unlike a loan, does not have to be repaid except under certain circumstances.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an application for college students to apply for federal student aid such as federal grants, work-study and loans.
Only about 49 percent of eligible students that planned to attend college completed a FAFSA form last year, said Jones.
The senator also touched on the student loan debt crisis. There is currently a $1 trillion student loan debt problem in the country and Alabama is among the highest, he said.
“Out of the 50 states, we’re number nine in highest debt and we’re only like 1 out of 5 where the average debt exceeds household income and that’s just ridiculous. We’re looking at a lot of things that will bring down the cost of higher education, number two we’re trying to figure out ways to make there be a more transparency with the cost of higher education,” he said.
He added that “we’re going to find ways to get more financial literacy into schools… that makes a big, big difference so people understand a little bit better about what they are getting into.”
Daveon Scott, a senior at Miles majoring in education, asked Jones, “what is the government doing to help annual salaries for teachers?”
“I’m trying to incentivize teachers to make sure that we can do loan forgiveness programs for teachers because I don’t want a teacher drowning in debt, knowing their salary is not going to be measurable to that debt,” said Jones. “We’ve been trying to look at some of those issues to try to forgive some of that debt to help people.”
Jones said he also has sponsored a bill that helps school systems with building infrastructure. “Give teachers and school children a better learning environment and that also helps . . . I’ve got a bill pending right now that would give grant money to do that.”
Youth incarceration was part of a discussion on criminal justice.
“The idea is to keep juveniles out of the system and that starts at a real community level,” Jones said. “The police have to be involved, communities, schools, everybody has a hand in this to try to keep those kids out of that pipeline because once they get there, it’s hard to get them out.
“I think there are some specific programs that we funded that are grant monies for states but at the end of the day, it’s the state and local folks who are really on the front line for the juvenile justice program,” he said.
Jones talked about restoring voting rights to convicted felons in Alabama, which is an issue he has been working on for more than 20 years.
“States like Alabama have held people back, they’ve done it in ways that I think are unfair, they’ve done it in ways I think because they want to oppress certain folks,” said Jones. “I absolutely think we need to expand voting rights even further.”
The state two years ago passed a statue that restored rights to felons, said Jones.
“I’d like to see our system of criminal justice not incarcerating as many people as we have been, but if we do and they are convicted and if we expect those folks to come back and be productive members of society, pay taxes, contribute to their communities, then we ought to be able to let them . . . vote.”
Abortion and Maternal Health
Jones said he has been spending a lot of time on maternal mortality and health, “I’ve got several bills pending right now about maternal health and it’s because of the fact that African American women are four to five times more likely to die in child birth than a white woman,” he said. “Their children are two or three times more likely to die and we’ve got to address the racial disparities in healthcare and not just talk about it holistically.”
Jones called “extreme” the Human Life Protection Act known as House Bill 314 passed by the Alabama Legislature this spring that bans all abortions in the state except when it is necessary to prevent a serious health risk.
“Abortion is a very difficult subject, it is one where people have deep beliefs that we have to respect such as religious and moral beliefs but I am one of those people that I believe we also have to respect women’s rights as well,” he said.
“It’s ironic that we would pass such a restrictive law when we lead the nation in infant mortality. We really need to focus on a bigger approach for women’s health and children’s health and I have been sitting down with a number of folks in the pro-life community to figure out what we can do to solve this issue together, but that [near-total abortion ban bill] was a huge step backwards for the state of Alabama.”