House panel advances bill toughening TOPS standards, stalls bill changing how TOPS money is distributed

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A House panel advanced a bill that would toughen TOPS standards Wednesday, while stalling another measure that would modify how the money is split up during shortfalls.

With a vote of 9-3, the House Education committee sent HB 390 to the House floor for consideration. Under the bill, the GPA requirement for high school students hoping to qualify the TOPS Opportunity Award would go up from 2.5 to 2.75. The change would take effect starting with the high school class of 2020-21.

Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, is sponsoring the legislation just one year after TOPS was only partially funded for the first time ever.

"I'm simply hearing from my constituents and people from around the state that they're frustrated with the uncertainty of TOPS," Foil said. "So I was looking for bringing a possible solution to keep the program intact."

The GPA boost would mean more than 1,800 students would no longer qualify for the Opportunity Award, which is one of the lesser awards offered by the state, according to the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA), which oversees the award program. Those students would still qualify for the TOPS Tech Award, which still would have a GPA requirement of 2.5.

However, some worry the change could hurt a certain group of students.

"It would greatly impair the low income and minority students because they are at the bottom. They would be eliminated to a large extent," said James Callier, the executive director of the Taylor Foundation.

Foil's original bill would have boosted the GPA requirement to 3.0. However, he agreed to amend the GPA boost to just 2.75 as part of a compromise.

Meanwhile, the same committee stalled a bill by Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, that would have prioritized poor and high achieving students when TOPS funding is short, refusing to send it to the full House.

Under Carter's plan, when TOPS is underfunded, qualifying students from families making less than $60,000 a year or with an ACT score of 30 or more would receive the full award. For context, the state average on the ACT is about 20.

The rest of the students would split the remaining money.

"Giving a cut to a kid whose family makes $150,000 or more is different than a cut to a family who perhaps makes less than $50,000, so let's do it in a more thoughtful, comprehensive way," Carter told the committee. "What I'm asking is instead of just using an axe, we use a scalpel."

For the 2016-17 school year, TOPS was only funded at around 67 percent.

If the rule in Carter's bill were applied this year, LOSFA estimates that about 32,000 students would receive full tuition. The remaining 20,000 would get an award funded at just 13.7 percent.

For example, at LSU's main campus this year, a fully-funded TOPS scholarship is worth about $7,463 per year. Funded at the 13.7 percent level, the award would be around $1,022 for the year. At Southern University's main campus this year, a fully-funded TOPS scholarship is worth $4,973. Funded at 13.7 percent, the scholarship would amount to $681.

Those numbers sent a shockwave through the community.

"You've got a large number of people in the middle that are just taking a big brunt," said Rep. Stephen Carter, R-Baton Rouge. "If you got a family of three or four, and you fall in the middle – wow!"

Other lawmakers worried about how the ACT and financial requirements were selected, fearful they were randomly choosing winners and losers.

"Whatever limit we set, and whatever metric you use, there's always going to be a spot just outside of that," said Rep. Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs.

Technically, lawmakers did not kill the measure. As a result, it could be reconsidered by the committee later this session.

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