Legislature creates TOPS back-up plan to ensure eligible students get some money if state comes up short _lowres

Advocate Photo -- Gov. John Bel Edwards took the lead Tuesday to unveil proposed cuts in state services, which include scaling back the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne is at the table with the governor before a Louisiana House Appropriations Committee hearing.

If plan A is to fully fund the TOPS scholarships and ensure every deserving student gets their full tuition covered by the state, then plan B is what the Legislature did on Wednesday to soften the blow in the event the program comes up short.

The Louisiana House approved a bill that creates a backup scenario in the event the state can’t fully fund the $300 million TOPS program. Senate Bill 470, by state Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, takes whatever amount is allocated to TOPS and spreads it evenly across the eligible recipients.

Based on the most recent version of the budget for the next fiscal year, starting July 1, students getting TOPS would receive about 75 percent of their award under this scenario. Typically, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students covers the full cost of tuition for public universities for in-state students who earn mid-level academic benchmarks with state dollars.

Lawmakers are grappling with closing a budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year of about $600 million, and for the first time in the program’s history, TOPS is at risk of not being fully funded.

Absent the legislation, lawmakers say the alternative is much harsher for Louisiana’s students. If TOPS is not fully funded, current law states that the difference must be made up by cutting the lowest achieving students first, based on ACT scores.

Students earning closest to the minimum eligibility score of a 20 on the ACT would be most vulnerable to lose their award entirely, while students with higher ACT scores would be safe.

“This is the equitable thing, and it’s the method that maintains the most integrity to the program,” said state Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, who presented the bill on the House floor. He noted that without the change in the law, some 13,000 students who expect to receive TOPS because they met the requirements would get nothing, and that includes students already in college who have received TOPS for past semesters and count on it to graduate.

Lawmakers have said their hope is the backup plan will be unnecessary and that the Legislature will fully fund TOPS this session or in a special session called later this year, ensuring all students receive their full scholarship.

The bill passed the House 96-7. It’s already passed the Senate. As long as some minor amendments are agreed upon, the legislation will be sent to the governor’s desk for final approval.

State Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, attempted to add an amendment to the bill that would have preserved the full award for those students who are the top 5 percent achievers, who generally earn a 32 or higher on the ACT.

She said that those particular students will have a free ride to any school in the South, and if the state sends them a check for part of their tuition it will be a “slap in the face.”

However, her amendment was rejected by legislators who said it was offensive to send a message that those students were more valuable to the state than the other ones and increase the burden on students on the cusp who might have a harder time paying the difference.

Several legislators returned to the sentiment that the Legislature’s No. 1 priority should be to fully fund TOPS so that the bill never comes into play.

“Maybe we should adequately fund government and higher education so we don’t have to make the choice,” Stokes said.

About 51,000 students receive TOPS scholarships. The most recent version of the budget, passed by the House, leaves a $72 million funding gap in TOPS that would cut 13,000 students from the program, under current law. But the Senate is expected to make changes to the budget next week.

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