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.

A final push to make major changes in the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students was derailed Wednesday in a key House committee.

Two Senate-passed bills that would allow some students to earn the most common form of TOPS, called Opportunity, with an ACT of 17 were rejected by the House Appropriations Committee.

The current requirement says high school students have to earn at least a 20 on the ACT, which measures college readiness, to get the Opportunity award.

One of the proposals, Senate Bill 380, is sponsored by Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans.

It failed 7-11.

The other measure, Senate Bill 394, is sponsored by Sen. Bodi White, R-Central.

It failed 9-10.

On Wednesday night, a bid to resurrect both bills, and add them to a minor TOPS bill, was shot down in the House 28-63.

Under Bishop's plan, students could land TOPS Opportunity with a 17 on the ACT if they enter a four-year university and earn a 3.2 GPA for two years.

James Caillier, executive director of the Taylor Foundation, which is named for the co-founder of TOPS, denounced the bill.

Caillier noted that students who score 17 on the ACT – a perfect score is 36 – finish in the 30th percentile, which means they outperformed 30 percent of their peers.

"There's nothing meritorious about the 30th percentile," Caillier told the committee.

"And I don't think we should lower our requirements to 17," he added. "We are criticized for 20."

Under current rules, high school students have to earn a 2.5 grade point average on their high school core curriculum and a 20 on the ACT, to get TOPS Opportunity.

That aid finances most college tuition.

Bishop disputed criticism of his bill.

He said students who get a 3.2 GPA in college are "honors" students.

"And you are saying this kid doesn't deserve TOPS, who has outperformed all of his peers?" Bishop asked Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, a member of the committee who said he was concerned about expanding TOPS.

About 52,000 students get the aid.

The state is spending about $292 million this year for the assistance.

Amid state budget problems, TOPS would be funded at about 80 percent of current levels under operating budgets approved by the House and Senate.

A special session that starts Tuesday aimed at closing Louisiana's $648 million shortfall could close that gap if the governor and Legislature agree on revenue-raising measures.

Under White's bill, students could land TOPS Opportunity for two years if they spent two years on TOPS Tech, which already requires a 17 on the ACT, got a 3.2 GPA and an associate degree.

TOPS Tech, which is the least used of the four TOPS awards, finances tuition at community and technical colleges.

"I think we need to push more people into community college," White told the committee.

He noted TOPS Tech costs the state about half of what other forms of TOPS do.

Both bills would take effect starting with the high school graduating class of 2022.

Some panel members said that, because of that lag, the Legislature can take another look at the issue in future sessions.

Caillier said White's bill was more problematic than Bishop's because high school students face a less rigorous curriculum to earn TOPS Tech.

Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said the bills are so similar that it makes no sense for committee members to back one and not the other.

"I'm sorry folks that is being a little bit hypocritical," Smith told colleagues.

She voted for Bishop's bill but against White's because of what she saw as inconsistency on the committee.

Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, who had his own TOPS overhaul bill killed in the House last week, accused Caillier of opposing any change to TOPS.

Caillier said he has backed moves to raise GPA requirements for TOPS stipends, which the top two categories provide, as well as a major bill that capped TOPS assistance.         

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.