Senator Lankford Supports Legislation to Address Injustice within American Opportunity Tax Credit

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Senators James Lankford (R-OK), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) along with Representatives Danny Davis (D-IL) and David Schweikert (R-AZ) announced new bipartisan, bicameral legislation to address a systematic injustice within the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC). The AOTC is the primary tax credit available to students seeking a higher education; however, students with a prior felony drug conviction are permanently ineligible from using the credit. This requirement makes it more difficult to ensure successful reentry for those who have served their time by limiting their ability to advance their education and pursue a career. The Members’ Eliminating Discrimination and Creating Corridors to Expand Student Success Act of 2019 (ED ACCESS Act) would fix this inequity by repealing the lifetime ban. 

This legislation is supported by a coalition of over 20 groups including the Drug Policy Alliance, FreedomWorks, and the NAACP. In addition to Lankford, Van Hollen, Portman, and Merkley, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) joined in introducing the legislation. In the House of Representatives, the legislation was also sponsored by Representatives Steven Horsford (D-NV) Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), Terri Sewell (D-AL), and Kenny Marchant (R-TX).

“Last year, the First Step Act was signed into law to give individuals who have paid their debts to society more opportunity for rehabilitative services and ultimately, a second chance,” said Lankford. “The repeal of the American Opportunity Tax Credit drug felony ban opens opportunities for students with prior drug convictions to pursue and afford college. This bill removes a hurdle that unfairly prevents these individuals from fully reintegrating and contributing to society for those who have repaid their debts to society.”

“The American Opportunity Tax Credit helps students across the country afford the rising costs of higher education. But for those previously convicted of a drug felony, who have served their time and are working to get back on track, it isn’t an option. This makes no sense – it’s bad policy and it stifles opportunity for these individuals. The ED ACCESS would right this wrong, and provide these men and women with crucial support to obtain a post-secondary education and ultimately contribute to our workforce and economy. I was proud to join my colleagues in introducing this bipartisan, bicameral legislation, and I look forward to working together to get this done,” said Van Hollen.  

“While we have come a long way over the last decade in implementing meaningful criminal justice reform, there is still more work to do,” said Portman. “That’s why I’m proud to lead this legislation alongside Senator Van Hollen and Representatives Davis and Schweikert. This bill will reform a decades-old provision of the tax code that discriminates against convicted drug felons and allow more Americans to use the American Opportunity Tax Credit to pursue an undergraduate education. The mistakes of your past shouldn’t define your future, and this bill will help more individuals returning from correctional institutions get a second chance and achieve their God-given potential.” 

“Even after serving their sentences, countless Americans face hurdle after hurdle when it comes to reentering society,” said Merkley. “This legislation is an important step forward in clearing one of those obstacles, by putting the American Opportunity Tax Credit in reach so these Americans can receive an education and put themselves on a path to a better life—benefiting them, their families, and all of our communities.”

“Encouraging education for people with records is a smart, cost-effective investment of taxpayer dollars.  This bipartisan bill would promote education, successful reentry, economic well-being, and labor force participation – which is why dozens of conservative and progressive organizations strongly support this bill,” said Davis.

“Ensuring that everyone is treated fairly by our nation’s tax code is of upmost importance. I am pleased to join in introducing this legislation that will remove barriers to entering our growing job market where we are seeing more jobs available than workers to fill them. I look forward to seeing how the American Opportunity Tax Credit will benefit students taking the next steps in their journey, and I thank my colleagues for working together to get this done,” said Schweikert.

“A quality education opens doors to promising career paths and a bright future.  Unfortunately, some individuals exiting the criminal justice system and seeking to change their lives for the better through education are unable to take advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which can help make that path forward achievable,” said Collins. “This bipartisan bill would amend this law so that students with drug felony convictions have access to the American Opportunity Tax Credit, an important resource for students pursuing a higher education.”

“Denying opportunity to those Americans who have served their time and want to pursue higher education is wrong, full stop,” said Wyden. “The federal government shouldn’t stand in the way of those seeking a better life. It’s past time to repeal this discriminatory requirement.” 

The text of the legislation can be found here. A one-pager on the bill can be found here.