Louisiana lawmakers have officially formed a bipartisan task force aimed at figuring out the best path forward to keep the TOPS program alive.
In its nearly two-decade history, the cost of the college scholarship program has ballooned. Its budget grew from about $50 million in 1999 to about $290 million for this fiscal year, according to records from the Legislative Fiscal Office and the Legislative Auditor’s Office. The expansion is in part the result of rising tuition.
“We haven't really been honest with ourselves that it is not sustainable in the current model,” said Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge. He is one member of the ten-person study panel.
Last year, the scholarship was underfunded for the first time in its history. The thought of that happening again is nerve-wracking for some parents, especially those with kids still in middle school and high school.
“In five, six years, I would like for it to still be around in order to help my daughter,” said Cilicia Tyson. Her daughter is about to enter 7th grade.
Starting in September, the task force will begin meeting. Their key goal is finding a way to rein in costs while continuing to help families.
“Doing nothing is not an option moving forward,” said Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, who is also a member of the task force.
This past spring, he was one of several state lawmakers to sponsor bills aimed at reforming the scholarship program. His bill, which would have boosted GPA requirements, failed. The other bills also stalled at the capitol.
Foil says you can expect old, familiar ideas to resurface again as the panel studies TOPS. That includes boosting GPA benchmarks. “It should be a merit based program, doesn't matter how much your parents make, if you as a student make the grades, you should get the TOPS scholarship,” said Foil.
Ultimately, the debate will likely center on what TOPS should look like. Should it be merit-based or need-based? Or perhaps, somewhere in the middle?
“Louisiana, we are one of the poorest states. So we have to do more for those students if we are serious about moving the economy,” said James.
The ten-person panel is split between House and Senate lawmakers. In addition to Foil and James, it includes the following people:
Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette
Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport
Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans
From the Senate, members include:
Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans
Ed Price, D-Gonzales
Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge
Mike Walsorth, R-West Monroe
Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Jennings, will serve as chairman.
The group's first meeting is set for September 6. Morrish says they could end up coming up with recommendations for legislation before next year’s session.