Louisiana lawmakers stall bill to prioritize some in TOPS

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – An effort to shield Louisiana’s highest-performing and poorest students from cuts to the TOPS college tuition program stalled Wednesday in favor of a proposal that would raise the academic standards for getting an award.

Rep. Gary Carter, a New Orleans Democrat, proposed to direct the flow of TOPS assistance to certain types of students if lawmakers don’t provide enough money to pay full tuition costs, similar to the program’s short-changing this year.

Starting in the 2020-21 school year, dollars would be prioritized for students who score 30 or higher on the ACT college admissions test and poor students whose family make up to twice the amount for Pell Grant qualification. Pro rata cuts would be made to award amounts for all other students if TOPS isn’t fully funded.

The measure failed to win the backing of the House Education Committee, with six lawmakers supporting the concept while seven opposed it. The vote keeps the measure from advancing to the House floor for debate. But the committee also refused to kill the bill outright, leaving Carter to suggest he might try again.

“We live to fight another day,” he said.

Carter said his approach was aimed at responding to a long-term disagreement about TOPS, whether it should be merit-based or needs-based, as program costs have ballooned and reached $290 million for full financing. A separate program to provide aid to needy students has stagnated at $26 million.

Carter sought a compromise, saying his approach would help retain the most talented students in Louisiana, while also giving poor students “the ability to educate themselves out of their circumstance.” He stressed the scenario would only take effect if lawmakers don’t cover the full cost of the TOPS program.

But the numbers worried some lawmakers who only paid for about 70 percent of tuition costs for students in the current school year. If that money had been reallocated, they were told, nearly 32,000 students would have gotten full tuition coverage, while only 13.7 percent of tuition costs would have been paid for the remaining 20,000.

“That’s a sizable amount, and that just scares me,” said Rep. Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican.

While lawmakers stalled the proposal over concern about picking winners and losers, they voted 9-3 to advance a bill raising the grade point average required for high school students to receive TOPS.

The measure by Rep. Franklin Foil, a Baton Rouge Republican, would bump the GPA from 2.5 to 2.75 for a student to get the basic TOPS award to attend a four-year university. The change would take effect in four years, so it wouldn’t apply to current high school students.

Foil said his proposal aimed to cut costs: “I’m concerned about the viability of the program.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards opposes the measure. The change, if enacted this year, would have kept more than 1,800 students from being eligible for tuition coverage through TOPS.

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House Bills 117 and 390: http://www.legis.la.gov

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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