When Pat Taylor famously promised a class of students at a poor New Orleans school that he would pay for their college tuition, there was a catch: The students would have to earn it, with good grades. The nobility of the Taylor promise was that lack of money would not stand in the way of college, if students worked hard.
Louisiana has never seemed further from Taylor’s goals than it is today.
We don’t think Taylor, who died in 2004, would be impressed with the Louisiana Legislature’s handling of the program named for him, TOPS.
With the governor and lawmakers at odds over the budget, many Republicans appear ready to sacrifice TOPS awards because of the GOP aversion to raising taxes. While there are legitimate reasons to debate the suggested revenue bills, the fact is, absent a legislative conversion of biblical proportions, there isn’t going to be money to pay for the anticipated costs of TOPS in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Shorting the program — and even uncertainty over whether it will be shorted — hurts chiefly the very people Taylor aimed to help.
Taylor’s private-sector pledge has morphed into a large state program, but it is named the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students because of the implicit bargain that if students made the grades, they would get support for a college education.
Governors and members of the Legislature have made some modest changes to TOPS, including placing reasonable limits on its future growth, rather than providing for automatic increases in the state checks. But the larger incentive has remained, that if a student takes the hard courses in high school and then wants to go to college, TOPS would be there.
Under terms of a bill just passed this year, the coming shortfall in TOPS will result in a cut for every recipient. The old law, in a nod to academics, had required that cuts to TOPS would be made from the bottom, reducing the number of awards among the students who had not done as well on the ACT.
The new law is thus not an incentive to get a higher test score but treats TOPS as an entitlement program, with students getting a smaller check if the money is not available. At the margins, that may mean no college at all for some students. For many, though, it will add to a financial burden that includes thousands of dollars a year for fees and room-and-board costs.
Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, speculated that the first TOPS cut will be the hardest.
“Once they’ve reached a point where they’re not funding it to its full intended obligation, then I think it’ll be easier from there on out,” he said, adding that lawmakers would be gauging the public outcry and the impact on enrollments. “It’s setting a precedent, and everyone will be testing the precedent to see if it’s something they want to test again.”
It’s also reducing the incentive, the key to the performance that Taylor sought to bring out in a classroom of kids that society then did not expect much out of.
No one is thrilled with higher taxes, but it’s a shame that this long-established incentive will be eroded, just a couple of months before the fall semesters begin.