Some Georgia middle school students could earn up to $10,000 for college through a privately funded scholarship Gov. Nathan Deal launched this year.
While Deal pitched the needs-based scholarship as a state program, local school systems are responsible for much of the fundraising, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of the rules.
The state will raise the seed money to cover the total scholarship for the first round of recipients from each participating district. It will pay about half the cost for the second group of winners, but districts must raise matching funds. Local systems must handle all scholarship costs in the third year and beyond.
Systems also are required to establish mentoring programs and identify school coaches to help students, filling those positions at a time when schools are laying off staff and eliminating academic programs because of continued years of budget cuts.
"Where are they going to raise the money?" asked Angela Palm, policy director for the Georgia School Boards Association. "This is like the state saying, I have a great idea, now you go do it. This isn't a state program. It's really a local program."
While the set-up may dissuade some systems from participating, the state will help local leaders build fundraising plans, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said. AT&T donated $250,000 in February and the state is "aggressively pursuing" private funding, Robinson said.
When Deal announced the award in February he said it "continues our state’s ongoing commitment to providing access to higher education for all Georgians, regardless of their income."
But the state didn't want to just hand school systems the money, said Jackie Coleman, who manages the Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen scholarship through the Georgia Student Finance Commission.
"You want everyone to have some skin in the game," she said last week. "We are making sure everyone involved has a part to play in this investment."
Selected students sign contracts promising to behave in school, remain crime-free and maintain good grades. In exchange, they will get annual tuition scholarships of $2,500 for up to four years.
Local school systems pick the students, with preference going to those who will be the first in their families to attend college.
Three school districts -- Rabun, Bulloch and Douglas counties -- are piloting the program, which will expand annually with the goal of becoming statewide, Coleman said.
Rabun will award three scholarships annually and announced the first cohort last week. The first scholarships will be paid out in fall 2017.
Superintendent Matt Arthur knew the amount of fundraising involved, but was confident the system would get it done. The district already runs a mentoring program, with 85 volunteers helping about 300 middle school students. One person has donated $70,000 for REACH, he said.
"If we didn't have these systems in place it would be more difficult to do," Arthur said. "It's worth it because this is an opportunity to change a generation."
Cost prevents some students from earning a college degree. But REACH could create an unbalanced playing field since the number of scholarships available depends on how much money a school district can raise, Cedric Johnson said. He wrote a recent Georgia Budget and Policy Institute report urging the state to create a needs-based scholarship.
Before Deal announced the program, Georgia had been the only Southeastern state without one, according to data from the nonpartisan Southern Regional Educational Board.
Georgia's program is modeled after Take Stock in Children, a Florida program that has helped nearly 18,000 attend college since it started about 17 years ago.
Florida's program has strong state support. The Legislature provides half the scholarship money and school districts must privately raise the other half, said Emilio Alonso-Mendoza, the program's president. Taxpayer money also covers between 80 percent and 90 percent of the administrative costs associated with the program.
"It's not my place to be critical, but if you want to make a difference the government has to put up some of the money," he said.
Robinson said REACH was developed without taxpayer money to tap into the private sector's desire to support education. The scholarship "provided an ideal platform" for government, businesses and philanthropic groups to work together, he said.
Deal announced his intention to create a needs-based scholarship in August as part of a wide range of initiatives to help more people earn a degree.
"The state's coffers already provide the most generous scholarship in the nation with the HOPE program," Robinson said. "There are only so many state dollars to go around -- which is why we developed REACH."
HOPE is funded by the Georgia Lottery, not taxpayer money.
Lawmakers overhauled HOPE last year to prevent it from running out of money. The scholarship used to cover all tuition but will gradually pay a smaller percentage of that cost each year.
Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, has criticized the HOPE changes and urged Deal to amend the program so that the money goes to academically strong students who are least likely to afford college.
"The real problem is we're not having an honest discussion about HOPE," Carter said. "REACH was an attempt to distract people from the real problem and now we see that program is just political veneer. They are just pretending when it comes to providing access for education."
How REACH works
Gov. Nathan Deal launched the REACH scholarship in February with three pilot systems. The goal is to expand the program statewide and the first scholarships will be awarded in 2017. Here's how the program will work:
Scholarships are funded through private donations. Some money will be raised by the state, but much of the private fundraising will be done by participating school districts.
School districts nominate seventh-graders to participate. These students come from low-income homes and show academic potential. Preference is given to those who would be the first in their families to attend college.
Students sign contracts pledging to behave in school and remain crime-free. They promise to maintain at least a "C" average in middle school and at least a 2.5 GPA in high school.
Students who adhere to the contract will get annual tuition scholarships of $2,500 for up to four years to attend a public or private college in Georgia.
School systems provide mentors and school coaches to groom students for college and keep them on track.
For more information contact the Georgia Student Finance Commission, www.gsfc.org.
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Credit: DeKalb County District Attorney's Office