SADOW: Getting TOPS Reform Past Jindal’s Veto Will Be A Challenge

Turns out that state Sens. Jack Donahue and Conrad Appel are cleverer than they look. The question is whether that’s enough to get Taylor Opportunity Program for Students reform past a doubting Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Donahue is the main author, with Appel, of SB 48, which would lock in TOPS awards at their academic year 2017 levels, after which the Legislature would have to affirm increases in that rate. This means that, under the 10 percent maximum now allowed annual increase in tuition for schools that meet performance targets and/or any future removal of legislative control over the raising of tuition beyond this level, tuition levels at schools can increase without the award level following suit, as now is the law. This effectively would cap TOPS costs at the level of next year’s costs for each school or substitute (such as a weighted average for nonpublic schools) that would vary only by the mix of students attending what schools.

Reading the bill in isolation, it would appear that instead of this outcome, it would create a gap between award and tuition that the student would have to cover through other means. But the interpretation above holds because of the way the law is written and the promulgated code associated with it. R.S. 17:3048.1(N) states that if insufficient money is present to fund all awards that then the Louisiana Student Financial Assistance Commission would establish criteria that decided who got awards, subject to the statute’s mandating usage of scores on the American College Test and expected family contribution (a federal government formula computed through the standards Free Application for Federal Student Aid process) as part of that. In other words, eligible applicants either get or do not get an award if not enough money is appropriated.

LASFAC dutifully issued such rules, stating that in this circumstance the first batch of students not to qualify were those who did not submit financial data. Next would come the lowest ACT cohort, by whole numbers, subdivided by contribution starting from the highest, by thousands of dollars. Given the statute’s language, this ordering could not be otherwise.

However, taking all of this together, it makes what appears to be in isolation a bill that may save only marginally money into one that fundamentally alters the nature of the program. The problem with TOPS always has been that it is an entitlement program first and foremost: achieve some undemanding standards, and the state throws free money at you to pursue college. Unfortunately, this encourages those, by ability or temperament, marginal students who are much more likely to lose their awards, if not flunk out of college, to attend with this taxpayer funding that if they lose these the state never recovers (although a minority will manage to finish degrees using other resources). As it is, about four-ninths lose eligibility, but the number would decrease disproportionately in greater amounts if those with the lowest ACT scores were excluded, accomplished by raising standards for qualification thereby making the program less an entitlement and more like a true scholarship program.

Which, in essence, is exactly what this bill does. Freezing TOPS funding and requiring the Legislature to vote more for it means that if tuition goes up and the Legislature doesn’t make that affirmation then the protocol for non-full funding kicks in that would eliminate (after those who did not submit all the proper paperwork) the weakest qualifiers. It even does something that opponents of raising standards who want to reduce costs want: introduce a redistributionist element to TOPS in that within ACT score cohorts the decision rule eliminates recipients on the basis of resources available for schooling. The bill simultaneously raises standards and, for its lowest qualifiers, introduces a measure of welfarism.

In that instance, Donahue’s and Appel’s idea (modified from an effort last year that would have locked in the amount and then allow it to advance by the rate of inflation) is inspired and, far from being a surface change only dealing with TOPS’ escalating costs, fundamentally alters the nature of the program in a mostly positive way. Passage of any of several other bills giving institutions control over setting tuition would magnify its salutary impact (Donahue says he only would pursue this and his bill SB 155 that would free schools in this regard together). Best of all one would elevate standards, but this bill as written can appeal not just to those who wish higher standards, but also those concerned about costs and those who desire the redistributionist element to it.

Only such a coalition may overcome Jindal’s expressed opposition. TOPS represents one of Jindal’s few blind spots in connecting reward to return in a sensible manner, as he has stated he wants to keep the program in its current form that does little to encourage excellence and prudent spending. That attitude threatens a veto of the legislation if it passes, and if cast sets up the interesting situation of whether it can be overridden. It will take mobilizing all of these constituencies to get this beneficial bill into law.



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