Former Democratic Gov. Zell Miller has become a factor in this year’s two biggest elections: the race for U.S. senator and governor.
Miller endorsed Democrat Michelle Nunn for Georgia’s open U.S. Senate seat. He’s also backing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal for re-election.
In campaign ads, Miller gives Deal credit for saving Georgia’s wildly popular lottery-funded HOPE scholarship.
“HOPE was a big achievement for Georgia,” Miller says in the ad. “But when it ran into trouble and headed for bankruptcy, Nathan Deal rose to the challenge. Now, thanks to Nathan, HOPE is available for the next generation.”
Those are strong words from Miller, considered the founder of HOPE. PolitiFact decided to take a closer look.
First, a little background on the merit-based scholarship program that inspired a federal tax credit and convinced more than a dozen states to start their own lotteries and scholarship programs.
In 1991, newly elected Gov. Zell Miller proposed legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to create a state lottery. Voters approved the amendment a year later funding three distinct programs: the HOPE scholarship; universal voluntary pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds, and instructional technology. The latter was later abandoned.
The first HOPE scholarship was awarded in 1993, and by, 2010, more than $5.2 billion in scholarships and grants had been awarded to more than 2.9 million students attending Georgia colleges, universities and technical colleges.
The popular program was simple: earn and keep a 3.0 grade point average and receive free tuition to a public college.
But Deal and lawmakers were presented with a dire forecast heading into the 2011 General Assembly session, Deal’s first as governor.
If changes weren’t made to HOPE and pre-k by the fiscal year that started July 2012, all of the lottery’s reserves would be depleted. Some of the needs of pre-k and HOPE also would not be met, lawmakers were told.
Deal led the revamp effort. He included some Democrat ideas in the final bill. For instance, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams pushed for, and won, retaining $13 million in the program to cover technical college students taking remedial classes.
Her negotiations with Deal also kept grants for 5,000 students to continue at proprietary schools such as DeVry – and some pushback from Democrats angry at her cooperation.
But Abrams gave a rare impassioned speech during the House floor vote, noting the program remained a way to invest in Georgia students and included both political parties’ priorities. She stood next to Deal as he signed what would be the signature legislation of his first year as governor.
The biggest change to emerge: students with a 3.0 grade point average would no longer receive a full college scholarship. Those would be reserved for about 10 percent of students — valedictorian or salutatorian or those with at least a 3.7 GPA and a combined 1200 on the math and reading sections of the SAT.
These students, now known as Zell Miller scholars, also would be required to maintain a 3.3 GPA in college to keep the full scholarship. Other major changes eliminated the automatic increases in scholarship awards to match tuition increases and raised the GPA for technical school grants from 2.0 to 3.0.
Renewed criticism of the changes came the following year, when almost 9,000 students lost the technical school grants because they couldn’t meet the higher academic standards.
Thousands more did not enroll, because they couldn’t afford to pay what HOPE no longer covered, according to the commissioner of the state’s technical college system. By 2013, lawmakers reverted back to the 2.0 GPA for technical college students, who tend to be older and working full-time while attending school.
Jason Carter, this year’s Democratic nominee for governor, was among those who didn’t agree with the reforms that were made. Carter and Senate Democrats favored a $140,000 family income cap, a proposal GOP leaders dismissed as fiscally impractical.
Carter has stepped up his criticism of Deal on HOPE during this year’s campaign, saying he’s to blame for tens of thousands of students no longer receiving HOPE.
Earlier this year, the left-leaning Georgia Budget & Policy Institute issued a report, showing that the scholarship, which some have dubbed “HOPE Lite,” continues to pay less and less of the costs of attending college.
At Georgia Tech, for example, a HOPE scholarship that once covered all tuition and mandatory fees, plus a book allowance now covers 59 percent of the costs of tuition. At the University of Georgia, a scholarship pays 62 percent of tuition costs, the researchers found.
When AJC repoter Janel Davis, spoke with Miller a week ago, he said Deal was true to his goal for HOPE.
“He held to that original thinking of mine that it was for the best students, not the best students who might have low income families, but just the best students period,” Miller said.
Deal made changes that eased financial pressures on the popular HOPE scholarship. But he also changed the program significantly.
The program is still making higher education more affordable for many students, though not as many as before.
Miller makes a valid argument here: Deal — with a little help — saved the HOPE scholarship.
But Miller’s declaration needs a bit of context to be fully understood.
We rate his statement Mostly True.