It’s Time For Republican Legislators To Start Openly Considering Dumping The TOPS Program

I’m not saying that because I think dumping TOPS is a good idea. If I was in charge of higher education funding in Louisiana I would take Bobby Jindal’s program of moving funding for the state’s public colleges through TOPS rather than state general fund appropriations even further and run the entire thing through TOPS; in doing so the students would be funding the colleges rather than the politicians and you’d have a true market for higher education that worked both ways – the colleges would be incentivized to admit students who carried with them various levels of state funding based on their qualifications, and the students carrying the money would be choosing among providers where to deposit their state-scholarship-supplemented tuition dollars.

That’s a system for a perfect world. We are not in such a world.

Instead, we’re in a world where the Left in Louisiana wants to take TOPS, for which the entire purpose of creation as a state college scholarship program was to provide an incentive for the state’s brightest high school graduates to stay in Louisiana for college rather than to decamp for greener pastures elsewhere and likely never return, thus accentuating a serious problem of brain-drain that has afflicted the Sportsman’s Paradise for decades to one extent or another, and turn it into a welfare program.

That desire is now reflected in a “study” done by the Cowen Institute at Tulane, which says…

As TOPS was originally designed to help low-income students afford higher education, the Cowen Institute favors need-based changes if cuts are made to the program. Nearly 40 percent of TOPS recipients come from families with annual incomes of $100,000 or above. Limiting the scholarships to students coming from families with annual incomes of no more than $50,000, would reduce the annual cost of TOPS by at least two-thirds, saving a minimum of $180 million annually.

“Even as the city’s schools and graduation rates improve, college access and affordability remain concerns for New Orleans’ high school students,” said Amanda Kruger Hill, Cowen Institute executive director. “Without TOPS, many of our best students could not afford college. Even in a time of state budgetary constraints, college access for our youth should remain a moral and economic imperative for the long-term prosperity of our state.”

That isn’t actually true. When oil magnate Pat Taylor created a private college scholarship program that was the precursor to the current TOPS program, it was in fact need-based. But that’s not what passed in the legislature. At the time, sending poor kids to college was not what the legislature thought was the major problem to solve – the major problem was that people Louisiana desperately needed to keep around were packing up and heading off to Texas or Florida or Georgia or Tennessee or wherever.

And if TOPS is going to be one more manifestation of the horrendous image on Louisiana’s state flag, namely the mama pelican feeding all the baby pelicans who never grow up and fend for themselves, then it’s time to burn it down.

Republicans in Louisiana’s legislature cannot assist in turning TOPS into an incentive to be poor. That would pervert the purpose of having the program in place. If TOPS is to be limited, then TOPS needs to require more work to get. It needs to demand a higher GPA and it needs to require better test scores.

Oh, but no, says Tulane. Can’t have that.

•  Raising the minimum qualifying GPA from 2.5 to 2.75 would have a greater impact in New Orleans than statewide: 28 percent fewer students in the city would be eligible, compared to 22 percent of students in Louisiana.

•  Increasing the minimum qualifying ACT score for the award to 21, which would reduce eligibility in New Orleans by 23 percent and statewide by 28 percent, would disproportionately affect African-American students. In New Orleans, 32 percent fewer African-American students would be eligible compared to 16 percent of Caucasian students; and statewide, 36 percent fewer African-American students compared to 25 percent of Caucasian students.

The naked racism of saying that you can’t raise GPA or ACT requirements or else black kids won’t be able to compete really needs to be called out and assailed as such. Black kids can compete for TOPS awards that are tougher to get; they need better preparation and better performance by the schools they attend, that’s all. And if the public schools they’re currently attending can’t do that, then they need the ability to choose better schools. Which the Cowen Institute, to its credit, is supportive of. The governor, of course, is not.

But if we’re now going to see a push to turn TOPS into Food Stamps For College Education, the response should be to dump the entire thing and put the $300 million back into higher ed funding – or better yet, return that money to the taxpayers. A Republican legislature which is complicit in perverting a merit-based program into a welfare program is a Republican legislature which is worthless.

And what we’ve seen with John Bel Edwards is that TOPS has now become the soft underbelly of the Republican budget argument. He has decided to hold TOPS hostage to his demands for ever-higher taxes, and in doing so he’s presiding over one of the most staggering economic collapses on the state level imaginable in a breathtakingly short time. It isn’t just the price of oil that is kicking Louisiana’s rear end right now; it’s the abrupt change in economic policy which is causing layoffs and disadvantageous business decisions in industries which aren’t tied to energy. Edwards is presenting the legislature with the Hobson’s choice that either it can assent in TOPS’ defunding and destruction, or it can vote to raise taxes in the midst of a terrible economy and therefore export jobs and capital to Texas and elsewhere just like the old days.

TOPS is an asset to the state, but it’s not more important than Louisiana’s productive economy. It’s Edwards’ fault that the legislature is forced to choose between the two. It’s a tyrannical choice he’s offering, and he’s doing it for the specific purpose of punishing the voters who supported his opponent and the Republican legislators with whom he’s fighting, because the primary beneficiaries of TOPS are middle-class white families who disproportionately sent their kids to private schools while funding Louisiana’s bloated and ineffective public school districts through property taxes. Those families generally don’t ask much from government and they certainly don’t get their money’s worth from the state with their tax bill; TOPS is the only thing Louisiana’s government can point to as a benefit to living here rather than something else.

Along comes this man to threaten that and leverage it against the Republicans. OK, fair enough. This is a bluff on his part. He’s saying “raise my taxes or your voters get screwed out of TOPS for their kids, and what’s left of TOPS will go to my voters when we make it needs-based.”

Call the bluff and tell him no. Tell him he gets no tax increases, and he can get off his Honor Code and do the work of finding money for TOPS, or else he can be the governor who killed the program outright through his budgetary incompetence.

Let it burn. Don’t play this man’s game.

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