Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Veterans entitled to tuition, Texas attorney general says

Vets in Texas entitled to local college rates

Veterans entitled to tuition, Texas attorney general says, reversing opinion

Texas official reverses opinion on legal residents who served

08:52 PM CST on Tuesday, January 15, 2008
By HOLLY K. HACKER / The Dallas Morning News

Texas veterans who are legal residents but not U.S. citizens are entitled to free college tuition, a state agency decided Tuesday, reversing an earlier policy that had prompted a federal lawsuit.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued the state last year on behalf of six Hispanic veterans who were legal permanent residents when they entered the military. They had applied for benefits under the Hazlewood Act, which waives tuition at Texas public colleges for honorably discharged veterans who served on active military duty.

The plaintiffs were denied because, according to two state attorney general opinions, only U.S. citizens were eligible for the tuition waivers.

But in a letter filed in court Monday, Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that he was withdrawing those opinions because his office determined that excluding permanent legal residents would not pass constitutional muster.

"With the benefit of additional briefing and analysis, we conclude that, as a constitutional matter, [the Hazlewood Act] cannot exclude from its reach honorably discharged veterans who were legal permanent residents at the time they enlisted," Mr. Abbott wrote to state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs and Military Installations.

All six plaintiffs have become naturalized citizens, said David Hinojosa, an attorney with MALDEF.

"They were ecstatic to hear about this change," he said. "It's not very often that you see an attorney general retracting his opinion."

The plaintiffs sued the state and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which denied the waivers, plus the colleges and universities that the plaintiffs had wanted to attend.

A spokeswoman for the Coordinating Board said the board denied the waivers because of the attorney general's opinions. The board held an emergency meeting Tuesday to revise its rules and allow affected veterans to register for the current semester.

"A lot of these veterans were threatened with having to drop out," Mr. Hinojosa said. "Other vets were having to put their education on hold."

In 2006, nearly 9,000 veterans received more than $14 million in tuition breaks under the state law. Mr. Hinojosa said that the decision affects not only the six veterans who sued, but hundreds of others

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