As Louisiana struggles with TOPS funding, bills to reform program pass first hurdle in Senate committee

Advocate staff photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — Incoming freshman and transfer students head to their next STRIPES activity Tuesday, August 11, 2015 on Louisiana State University’s campus.

Recipients of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students would see huge changes, and in some cases cuts, when the program suffers a shortfall under legislation that cleared the House Education Committee on Tuesday.

The measure, House Bill 399, won approval 7-4 and next faces action in the full House.

The lateness of the session, and the fact that TOPS is often politically untouchable, means the bill's fate is unclear.

Another TOPS overhaul bill that cleared the committee earlier this year was crushed in the House.

Under current rules, TOPS aid is trimmed by the same amount for all of the roughly 52,000 recipients when it is underfunded, as it was in 2017.

The legislation would change that, ensuring 100 percent funding for the best students and those with financial needs.

But about 14,000 students who get TOPS Opportunity and do not qualify for Pell grants would get 28 percent of the normal amount.

Families with incomes of roughly $50,000 and above are ineligible for the grants, officials said.

Whether TOPS will be fully funded for the 2018-19 school year is unclear amid state budget problems and the inability of Gov. John Bel Edwards and legislative leaders to agree on solutions.

The House-passed operating budget, which is under review in the Senate, would fund TOPS at 80 percent of current levels — about $233 million.

House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger III, who handled the bill, said the plan would ensure that the highest-achieving students would be 100 percent funded even if state aid falls short.

Students who gets TOPS Honors or TOPS Performance — nearly 25,000 students — would be protected on tuition but their annual stipends would be eliminated.

The roughly 10,000 students who get TOPS Opportunity — the most popular category — and qualify for Pell grants also would be 100 percent funded under the legislation.

The 14,000 students in line for major cuts would get $23.7 million of the $233 million in TOPS funds under Leger's scenario.

Leger said that, of that group, about 9,500 come from families with incomes of more than $100,000.

Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, a member of the committee, was taken aback by the number of students who would face major reductions if TOPS is underfunded.

"Wow. I better not ask any more questions," said Carter, who later voted yes on the bill.

James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, which is named for one of the founders of TOPS, said the bill would do harm by converting a merit-based program into one that is needs-based.

"TOPS should remain, and always has been, a merit-based scholarship," Caillier told legislators. "That was the case in 1989, and it is today."

He said Georgia, like Louisiana, treats all of its TOPS-like college aid students the same when that state's HOPE program is underfunded.

Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington, a member of the committee, praised the legislation.

"It incentivizes parents and children to reach higher," Wright said. "That is the only way you are going to guarantee you are going to get that money."

Eva Kemp, state director of Democrats for Education Reform-Louisiana, backed the bill and praised the committee's action.

“With more students going to college and qualifying for TOPS, we must make sure we prioritize TOPS for our best and brightest — that includes students who are high performers and come from working-class families," Kemp said in a statement.

Rep. Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs, said the bill would put an unfair burden on a relatively small number of students to absorb most of the hit during any TOPS shortfall.

The state is spending nearly $300 million for TOPS in the current school year.

TOPS has four categories: Honors, Performance, Opportunity and TOPS Tech.

The most common form of the award, Opportunity, requires students to earn a 20 on the ACT and a 2.5 GPA on their high school core curriculum.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans.

Leger handled it in committee because Carter was out of town.

Voting for the TOPS changes (7): Reps. Jeffrey Hall, D-Alexandria; Ken Brass, D-Gonzales; Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge; Julie Emerson, R-Carencro; Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans; Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and Mark Wright, R-Covington.

Voting against HB399 (4): Reps. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma; Reid Falconer, R-Mandeville; Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs and Polly Thomas, R-Metairie.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.