By Devon Sanders, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Tensions were high in the House Thursday while discussing problems the state will face if a House plan to cut TOPS funding by 20 percent takes effect.
And in the end, the Republican-led chamber rejected a bill by Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, that would have prioritized TOPS funding based on both academic achievement and financial need if the Senate and the governor agreed to cut overall TOPS funding. The bill failed 70-27.
Under the House’s version of the budget, all TOPS recipients, regardless of award level, would receive only 80 percent of the amount needed to cover their college tuition.
Carter suggested instead that students who earn the top-level Honors Awards, which require a 27 on the ACT, and Performance Awards, which require an ACT of 23, would be fully funded. Then, the state would fund Opportunity Awards, which require a 20 on the ACT, for students eligible for need-based federal Pell Grants and who come from families earning $50,000 a year or less.
After those awards were given, the remaining funding would go to all other recipients.
Carter said he wanted to fully fund TOPS and that his bill would apply only if TOPS spending was cut.
Some representatives did not agree with preferential treatment based on financial need. The debate offered interesting insights into how some legislators view TOPS and reject criticism that it has become a middle-class entitlement program.
Rep. Polly Thomas, R-Metairie, argued that the state already had need-based scholarship programs, and that TOPS did not need to become one.
In reality, the TOPS program began in 1988 as a completely need-based program. In 1989, the TOPS program became state-funded, and academic requirements were added. But an income cap remained that limited the program to those with financial need.
By 1997, the income cap was removed, and the program opened up to all students. The state created the Go Grant Program, which is a need-based grant.
However, the Go Grant Program receives less than 20 percent of the funding allocated to TOPS.
“We fund our priorities,” Carter said in response to Thomas’ arguments against the bill.
Rep. Kenneth Havard, R-Jackson, connected students most deserving of TOPS funding to those whose parents pay the most tax dollars.
Referring to TOPS’s original needs-based structure and the program’s founder, Patrick F. Taylor, he said that Taylor’s organization was not funding it anymore, taxpayers were.
He also said that he did not feel those who already received Pell Grants should be more entitled to receiving TOPS funding.
Rep. Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs, said that he would not vote for the bill because he felt if the bill passed, there would be less incentive to fully fund TOPS.