Cutting HOPE to save it

Cutting HOPE to save it

February 21st, 2011 in Opinion Times

In a way, Georgia's lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program is a victim of its own success. The promise of free education at state institutions of higher learning and of free prekindergarten for 4-year-olds attracted hundreds of thousands of qualified students. The result has been a fiscal nightmare. Rising lottery revenues could not match the demand for funds to cover the bills. HOPE rules clearly had to change if the program was to remain viable. Proposals to be announced this week by Gov. Nathan Deal might save HOPE, but the cuts necessary to save it will be deep and painful.

The governor, sworn into office on Jan. 10, and state legislators have worked quickly to revamp a program that would have been about $380 million in the red in 2012 and for hundreds of millions more in each of the following years if it was not changed. Details of the plan won't be announced officially until later this week, but talk of impending cuts and changes was rampant at the Capitol late last week. Though some particulars could change before the public announcement, the governor's plan contains sweeping changes to the two-decade-old program.

Deal is expected to tell Georgians that the new HOPE will not cover any future increases in tuition and that book stipends and payment for other fees will be eliminated. The proposal also would eliminate payments for remedial classes at most state institutions, would provide funds for only 127 credit hours, or four full-time years of study, and would cut awards to students attending private schools in Georgia from $4,000 annually to about $3,600. The pre-k program would be scaled back, too.

The governor's proposal also would sharply reduce or eliminate bonuses for lottery employees. The latter would provide considerable savings. The Georgia Lottery awarded bonuses of more than $330,000 to its five highest paid employees in 2010, and the agency often distributes about $2 million a year in employee bonuses overall. The governor also might attempt to reduce the amount of money paid to retailers who sell lottery tickets. Ending bonuses is certainly in order and retailers are unlikely to suffer major harm if their payments are reduced.

Some program rules would not change, officials familiar with the governor's proposal indicated last week. Eligibility requirements would remain the same. Georgia high school graduates can earn the HOPE if they graduate from high school with a B or better average and maintain at least a 3.0 average in college. The proposal also would leave intact the rule that allows students whose GPA slides below a B average to win back the scholarship if their grades reach the required level. Students currently in middle and high school, particularly, will benefit from such continuity.

The major cuts and changes proposed by Deal, of course, must receive legislative approval. There is likely to be some opposition, but not enough to reject the proposals in their entirety or even to modify segments of it. Deal has a Republican majority in both houses of the Legislature and surely will get his way on this issue.

If passed, the new rules certainly will create hardships for many Georgians. It will increase the economic burden on already cash-strapped parents paying for college. It likely will reduce the number of 4-year-olds who attend prekindergarten or shorten the amount of time they spend in school each day. Neither is conducive to the learning process for youngsters at a crucial point of their development.

Georgians likely will have to live with a much changed HOPE in coming years. They have little choice. It's better to have a viable HOPE program that provides smaller but still useful benefits than not to have a program at all.