Last Modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014 2:31 AM
The most popular scholarship program in Louisiana history is expected to cost the state over $234 million in the next fiscal year. The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, better known as TOPS, had a difficult time finding $1.9 million with which to operate in 1989, its first year.
Despite its mounting costs, the program has become virtually untouchable. Like the homestead exemption that protects low-income citizens from property taxes, TOPS is another sacred cow. Only one TOPS reform bill at the current legislative session has gotten out of committee, and it was defeated this week in the state Senate.
The program is named for the late oilman Patrick F. Taylor, who conceived the idea in 1988. That is when he promised 183 students in a middle school in New Orleans East he would make sure they could attend college if they kept up their grades and stayed out of trouble. They became known as “Taylor’s Kids” and one-fourth of them ended up in college.
Taylor took his idea to the Legislature in 1989 and it passed the original TOPS program. The free tuition scholarships were available for students who completed a core curriculum with a family income of $30,000 or less, a minimum American College Test (ACT) score of 18 and who had no criminal record.
The proposal failed to pass in the regular session, but was approved at a special session. In late July, the state Board of Regents OK’d the plan for the 1989 fall semester, but the $1.9 million still wasn’t available.
“The colleges can accept the children on the full faith and credit of Louisiana and they will be paid later,” said P.J. Mills, Gov. Buddy Roemer’s chief of staff.
The state came through, and the $1.9 million was expected to accommodate about 1,280 students. First Lady Barbara Bush, while in New Orleans in 1989, challenged a group of underprivileged college-bound students to work hard and keep up their grades.
The history of TOPS hasn’t been kind to the two men who made the scholarship program available to more students and financially rewarding to those who excelled. Without their help and legislative push, the program may have never blossomed into what it is today.
Gov. Mike Foster (1996-2004) and state Rep. Charles R. McDonald of Bastrop (1991-2008) got the Legislature in 1997 to open TOPS benefits to all students with a 2.5 grade point average and a 19 on the ACT. Family income was no longer considered for eligibility and students with better records were entitled to $400 and $800 in extra funding for other expenses.
McDonald sponsored ACT 1375 of 1997 and urged Foster to help him get the broader scholarship program into law. The governor agreed, and McDonald’s legislation was approved unanimously in both the House and Senate.
I ran into McDonald at the state Capitol over a week ago when former legislators visited for their annual recognition day. I told him Foster knew, he knew and others of us knew what a key role McDonald played in getting stable funding for TOPS. It is time he and Foster receive the recognition they deserve.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and many legislators don’t want to change TOPS, but they are simply postponing the inevitable. The program is projected to cost over $354 million in fiscal year 2018-19.
State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, sponsored the TOPS bill that was defeated in the Senate. His legislation (SB 520) made modest changes in the program. It would have raised the grade point average from 2.5 to 2.75 and the ACT score from 20 to 21. The higher standards wouldn’t have started until the 2017-18 school year.
The vote was 16 for and 23 against. Sens. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur; Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte; and Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, voted for the bill. Sen. John Smith, R-Leesville, was against.
TOPS has benefited over 616,000 students since its beginning in 1999 at a cost of almost $1.8 billion. However, the program is in need of reform. Reports indicate, for example, that 40 percent of college freshmen who receive TOPS lose their funding because of poor grades.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, got an amendment added to Donahue’s bill that said students who lose their scholarships in the first year would have to repay their tuition money. The amendment was approved 21-17. Johns and Morrish voted for it. LaFleur and Smith were against.
Other TOPS bills are in the pipeline, but their odds of passage are slim to none. Jindal doesn’t want anyone messing around with the scholarship program. A veto of any bills that pass is almost guaranteed.
Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Houma, saw one of his TOPS bills die in committee. He said the Legislature is “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” In other words, it is taking money from a state budget that is in the red to finance TOPS. Or getting rid of one debt by going deeper in the hole somewhere else. Colleges and universities are responsible for educating TOPS recipients, but they get hit really hard in the process.
This is just another example of a governor and a Legislature refusing to fix a serious problem, content to leave the solutions to the next administration. Shame on those who refuse to accept their financial responsibilities.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted By: Alvin Dominique On: 5/18/2014
The legis are the reason TOPS cost have risen. They robbed higher ed and replaced the funds with higher tuition. Tution cost is what the cost are calculated at. Does not take a rocket scientist to figure that out. The legis continue to fund NGO's which is not the responsibility of the state. They continue to waste funds on unneeded studies. Louisiana is not cash poor, it just spends too much on junk. The legis need to look in the mirror for the problem. What would they use the funds for if it was stopped, more junk.