A few weeks ago, Gov. Brian Kemp tucked a surprise into his spending proposal for the upcoming fiscal year: a budget item that would boost funding for the HOPE scholarship and at least temporarily end the two-tier award system that many lawmakers long hoped to eliminate.
The plan won plaudits from Democrats who otherwise oppose Kemp’s agenda, pledges of support from GOP lawmakers and hurrahs from student groups. But now the extra funding is at the center of a rift over higher education policy.
The Georgia House voted for a version of the budget last week that rejected Kemp’s proposal to fund the scholarships at 100% of tuition. Instead, it would boost the awards from 90% to 95% and reserve full funding to a smaller group of high-achieving students.
House leaders say it gives students an extra incentive to strive for the Zell Miller scholarship, which requires recipients to maintain a 3.7 grade-point average and score at least a 1,200 on their SAT test. The remaining tuition, they say, isn’t a financial burden on families.
The vote reignited a debate over the future of the popular lottery-funded scholarship, which was slashed a dozen years ago amid a financial crunch.
Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans, who campaigned for governor five years ago on a promise to reverse cuts to the program, said restoring the funding would amount to a $26 million expenditure in a $32.4 billion budget.
“We have the money to return the full promise of HOPE to all of our scholars, not just those with a 1,200 SAT score,” she said, pointing to the lottery’s $1.9 billion in reserves, including $1.1 billion that is unrestricted.
“Why would we deprive tuition coverage for all HOPE scholars? All of them have met a merit requirement, every single one of them has a 3.0 (GPA). And every single one of them is putting in the time and the effort.”
The debate over the HOPE scholarship’s funding has deep roots. Faced with slowing lottery revenue and rising demand, the General Assembly in 2011 tightened eligibility requirements and reduced award payouts to prevent the program from going broke.
Before the overhaul, students who maintained at least a “B” average received free in-state tuition. After the 2011 legislation, only recipients of the Zell Miller awards received the full payout. Other HOPE scholars now get 90% of the tuition.
The change was implemented after state officials warned that the lottery’s reserves would be depleted within years if immediate changes weren’t adopted. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal led a bipartisan coalition to implement the revamp.
The supporters of Deal’s proposal, including then-House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, framed it as a difficult yet necessary step to stave off deeper cuts. Abrams also won concessions from Republicans, including more funding for tech school students taking remedial classes.
Opponents cast the overhaul as a betrayal of the scholarship’s promise. Evans said the law’s signing was the “most devastating day” of her political career — and one that propelled her to launch a HOPE-themed 2018 bid for governor.
But House leaders say they’re reluctant to reverse the cuts amid gathering economic storm clouds — and memories of the political fallout over their votes to cut HOPE awards. That was spurred in part by decisions by the Board of Regents to hike tuition in response to state spending cuts during the Great Recession.
Republican state Rep. Matt Hatchett, the chair of the House’s budget-writing committee, noted the “extremely difficult decision” in 2011. But he said students fighting to earn the Zell Miller scholarship under the new system “deserve to have their hard work acknowledged and a higher payment.”
Kemp hasn’t publicly lobbied for more funding for the tuition since he unveiled the plan during his State of the State address. But at a bill-signing ceremony Monday, he made clear it remains a priority.
“I’ll continue to fight for my position, I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said, adding that he also understands the give-and-take of the Legislature. “We understand how that works. I feel certain that we’ll come to a really good solution for our students and for their families.”
Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC
Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC
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Credit: Channel 2 Action News