NASHVILLE-A proposal to make it more difficult for Tennessee students to obtain lottery scholarships may end up being studied by a task force over the summer, said the measure's Senate sponsor.
Gov. Bill Haslam, who has made education reform a top priority during his first term, has not included such legislation in his agenda.
Currently, students need a grade point average of 3.0 or a score of 21 on the ACT to qualify for the $4,000 annual scholarship at four-year schools.
Under a bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Harry Brooks, of Knoxville, that's advancing in the House, those requirements would bump up to a 3.1 GPA or a 22 on the ACT for students graduating from high school after June 30, 2014. And in the following year, the standards would rise to a 3.25 GPA or a 23 on the ACT.
Brooks said one reason for the proposal is that Tennessee, like other states, still is struggling economically and lawmakers are looking for ways to save money.
The state currently has about $320 million available for lottery scholarships. But an analysis last year projects shortfalls between expected lottery proceeds and the costs of scholarships of $22 million in 2011-12, $21 million in 2012-13 and $19 million in 2013-14.
That has some lawmakers concerned because eventually the fund may not have enough money to pay scholarships, which would leave taxpayers to foot the bill.
"We have to ultimately balance the budget," Brooks said. "Our students are outperforming our projections."
Senate sponsor Delores Gresham, a Somerville Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said she understands Brooks' financial reasoning, but believes the proposal likely will go to the lottery stabilization task force set to meet this summer.
"We have to look at a number of measures that will help ensure the viability of the lottery scholarship legislation into the future," said Gresham, adding that she's waiting to see what happens to the bill, which is set to be heard by the House Finance Subcommittee.
Haslam said in an interview with The Associated Press last week that he was unaware of the details of Brooks' proposal.
He said changing requirements for lottery scholarships wasn't an issue he planned to take up, but agreed the state "can't keep running a deficit."
"Eventually we have to address that," said the Republican governor. "I'd want to look at that to see exactly how they're doing that."
Tim Phelps, associate executive director for grant and scholarship programs for the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, said under Brooks' proposal about 900 students would lose their lottery scholarship the first year and roughly 2,500 students when requirements would be increased even more the second year.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis unsuccessfully tried to pass a bill last week that sought to make sure the amount of the lottery scholarships doesn't decrease.
Kyle said the purpose of the lottery scholarship was to raise the percentage of state citizens who receive a college education. "Anything less than that is simply a privilege program for the few who get it," he said.
Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters agreed.
"The lottery was set up to provide opportunities for young people to go to college," he said. "There's a significant amount of money in the lottery reserves, and it seems very premature for us to start cutting back on issuing those scholarships until that reserve is exhausted."
Read HB0013, SB1867 at: http://capitol.tn.gov