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No action likely this year to save Georgia's HOPE scholarship

12:38 AM, Mar 22, 2012   |    comments
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Georgia State University students

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Georgia's popular HOPE college scholarship program is speeding toward a cliff, but it's not likely that anyone at the State Capitol will be doing anything this year to steer it to safety.

The legislature is getting ready to adjourn for the year without taking any action to save the HOPE scholarship from falling short of the money needed to meet rising costs.

In fact, the state projects that by the 2015-2016 school year, HOPE for the first time will be paying less than half of tuition, and students will be paying more than half.

And Democrats at the legislature like Senator Curt Thompson of Tucker are now accusing the Republican leadership of dodging the issue.

"It's basically fiddling while Rome burns," Thompson said Wednesday. "Even students currently going to school have been promised that if you played by the rules, if you studied hard and got good grades, you would get a HOPE scholarship. We broke that promise. And we didn't have to break that promise."

But Governor Deal's Deputy Chief of Staff Brian Robinson said Wednesday that it was Governor Deal's plan last year -- which included cutting back the HOPE scholarships to 87 percent of tuition -- that saved the program from running completely out of money.

And there is time, Robinson said, to consider additional fixes.

"People sometimes lose sight of the fact that getting 87 percent of your tuition covered is a luxury unimagined by people in most other states.... As we move forward and see how these reforms play out, we'll take action again in the future as needs arise."

Thompson and the Democrats are stressing an urgency that the Republican leadership, with Gov. Deal at the helm, insist is not necessary.

Today's high schoolers, Thompson said, "need to start budgeting for something radically different than what their older brothers and sisters had to do, because it's going away. HOPE as we know it is going away."

The governor's set of solutions last year, he said, is not saving HOPE.

"No one wanted to address it" this year, Thompson said, "because addressing it would involve dealing with the revenue question" and the impact of several years' worth of state budget cuts to elementary, secondary and post-secondary education in Georgia.

"You're hoping that by looking at other things, and talking about other things, and just ignoring the problem it might go away. It's not going to go away.... I would say that it was a lack of political will to deal with real world solutions.... Either address the benefit side or address the revenue side. Because those are the only two things" that can be adjusted to bring HOPE back up to full funding, Thompson said.

"If you don't have that educated work force and you don't fully fund it, you're not going to attract jobs. So it's creating a bigger problem, long term, than just what's happening to these scholars. It's going to affect our economy, it's going to affect our kids."

Robinson said the Governor's critics are forgetting that last year the HOPE scholarship program was one year away from running out of money entirely, and the cutbacks put in place then were better than eliminating the program altogether.

"We had to make a decision to get people less money so that we could keep giving them this important scholarship. The life of the scholarship was at issue. And without these reforms there would not be a HOPE scholarship."

The "reforms" need more time to prove that the program is stabilized, he said, before doing any more restructuring this year.

"Gov. Deal wanted to see how the reforms were working, he wanted to get us a year or a little more under our belts under the new system to see how it's working. We don't need to keep tinkering and keep tinkering and keep tinkering until we know how this is going to flesh out.... The reforms made last year saved the program. For the short term and for the long term. There will come a day when the legislature and the Governor have to revisit the issue and deal with the new reality.... But one thing that we all have to agree is that we can't make money fall from the sky, we have to deal with the realities that we have a limited pie."

The entire legislature is up for reelection this year, and HOPE is certain to be a hot issue as tuition comes due in the fall.

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