Don't cut lottery stipends

Don't cut lottery stipends

March 2nd, 2012 in Opinion Times

Tennessee state Sen. Delores Gresham has her priorities all wrong. The Somerville Republican, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is determined to push through a cost-saving measure that will make it harder for the state's students to win the hugely popular $4,000-a-year Hope Scholarships for college. Trouble is, there's no pressing need to toughen standards in order to build up the treasury of the Tennessee Lottery, which funds the scholarships. The lottery's finances, all things considered, are in pretty good shape, thank you.

They certainly are sound enough to underwrite the projected costs of the scholarships for the next decade, and probably beyond, without changing current rules. Tennessee Lottery President Rebecca Hargrove, hardly a fiscal liberal, intimated as much in testimony before Hargrove's committee earlier this week. Indeed, the lottery official said lottery proceeds for education are up by $10 million for the first seven months of the current fiscal year over the same period a year ago. She said, too, that she believes the state's lottery, fueled in part by positive changes in the national Powerball lottery, can sustain that growth.

It is true that the lottery's education fund pays out more than it receives. That's testimony to its popularity. The gap is about $20 million annually, a considerable amount but one that can be managed given the fact that the scholarship account currently has a reserve of more than $300 million, plus the expectation of increased revenues. The Hope program, then, can operate at a deficit for a considerable period. Deficit operations are not always the best path, but in this instance doing so is far better than tightening standards and reducing the number of students who earn and properly use the stipends.

The Hope Scholarship program was created to spur college attendance in a state woefully low in the number of college graduates. Over the years, Democrats and Republicans often have joined together to create extended educational opportunities for Tennessee students. The Hope Scholarships are one example, and they have proved immensely successful. Enrollment at all levels of higher education in the state continues to grow. Many students now in college, in fact, could not afford higher education without a Hope Scholarship.

Gresham's proposal would cut lottery scholarships for students who don't score a 21 on ACT tests and maintain a 3.0 high school grade point average from $4,000 to $2,000. The current regulation requires students to score either a 21 or to maintain the requisite GPA. It a fair and serviceable rule. Tennessee, which currently ranks near the bottom of state rankings in percentage of college graduates, should encourage, not discourage, college attendance. Gresham prefers the latter.

If she prevails, continued economic growth, fueled in large part by a highly educated and skilled work force, and the well-paying jobs and high-tech industries it brings to the state would be hard to sustain. Short-sighted legislators and legislation should not be allowed to constrict the availability of higher education to state residents. Now is the time to expand opportunity, not reduce it as Gresham and other Republicans want to do.