By Joby Richard, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — The House Education Committee pushed four bills this week to the House floor, two involving TOPS scholarships and two focused on student safety.
The committee on Wednesday passed a bill to create a TOPS Second Chance Award for students who are succeeding at four-year universities even though they did not score at least a 20 on the ACT in high school.
The panel also approved, 7-4 on Tuesday, a bill that would guarantee full funding for the top two levels of TOPS scholarships–and for students with demonstrated financial need– even if the Legislature cuts overall funding for the program.
One of the school safety bills would allow students to wear bulletproof backpacks if they want. The other would require that high school baseball and softball dugouts be enclosed to protect players. The committee approved both on Wednesday
The state Senate already has passed both of the safety bills as well as the proposal for the TOPS Second Chance Award.
The TOPS Second Chance bill, proposed by Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, would apply to students who scored 17 to 19 on the ACT in high school.
These students would have to self-fund their coursework for two years at a four-year university and earn a 3.2 cumulative grade point average over at least 60 credit hours. They would be eligible for a TOPS Opportunity Award for their final two years.
Rep. Joe Bouie, D-New Orleans, said GPA is often a better indicator of college success than an ACT score.
The House recently passed a budget that would fund next year’s TOPS program at only 80 percent of the current level. The possibility of cuts in TOPS spending prompted Rep. Gary Carter, D–New Orleans, to propose a contingency plan to ensure that high-achieving students and those with demonstrated financial need did not lose any money.
Under Carter’s proposal, the state would fully fund the following TOPS awards in this order.
First, Honors Awards, which require a 27 on the ACT, and Performance Awards, which require an ACT of 23, would be funded. Then, the State would fund Opportunity Awards, which require a 20 on the ACT, for students eligible for Pell Grants and who come from families earning $50,000 a year or less.
Carter’s bill was the only bill that divided the committee. Four Democrats and three Republicans supported it, while four Republicans opposed it.
The Patrick Taylor Foundation, which was founded by Patrick Taylor, the founder of TOPS, and his wife Phyllis in 1985, also opposed the bill. James Caillier, the foundation’s executive director, said the Legislature faced the same issue in 2005 about how to supplement TOPS funding for students with demonstrated financial need.
The result was the creation of the state’s Go Grant Program, which is a need-based grant for low-income students. Caillier wants to keep TOPS a merit-based scholarship based on academic performance, not financial need.
The Legislature has not fully funded the TOPS program twice in recent years. If TOPS is not fully funded again next year, Caillier asked that students in all of the scholarship levels receive the same percentage of their awards, as in the past.
Both the bulletproof backpack bill, proposed by Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, and the dugout safety bill, written by Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan, passed easily Wednesday in the House committee.
Bulletproof backpacks have been banned in schools since the Legislature designated schools as gun-free zones in the early 1990s. Walsworth’s bill would offer parents the option of buying them for their children.
Perry’s bill would require that all high school baseball and softball dugouts for schools receiving state dollars be enclosed. At a minimum, this could include placing nets in front of dugout entrances and exits, he said.
The bill intends to slow the velocity of balls that are overthrown or hit into dugouts.
Perry said he received a call from a constituent last fall saying her daughter had been hit in the head by an overthrown ball while sitting in a dugout at a softball tournament. The ball was estimated to be traveling between 55 and 60 miles an hour.
Perry said the girl is still homebound. She has been to 12 doctors and more than 50 appointments and is on 12 medications. She might still require neck surgery. Perry said she was the third student to be struck by a ball in a dugout in that parish.
Perry said nets could cover dugouts with one entrance at a cost of $100, while $250 should cover wide-open dugouts. Perry said school booster clubs would likely absorb most of the costs.
If passed by the full House and signed by the governor, the law would take effect on Oct. 1.