AP Wire

Bill to toughen standards for TOPS program dropped

by Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

Future high school students won't have to meet tougher standards to get their college tuition paid through Louisiana's TOPS program, at least for now.

Rather than face likely defeat in the Senate, a Baton Rouge lawmaker Thursday dropped his proposal to bump the grade point average from 2.5 to 2.75 for a student to get the basic TOPS award to attend a four-year university. The change would have taken effect in four years.

Instead, Republican Rep. Franklin Foil said he'll work with a planned study group on recommendations for how Louisiana should dole out awards from the nearly $300 million program. He said there's time for further study since the bill's provisions wouldn't have kicked in until the 2021-22 school year.

"I will come back next year after I have the benefit of that information from the task force," Foil told the Senate Education Committee in quick remarks before withdrawing his bill from consideration.

The measure scraped through the House with the narrowest of votes but faced opposition from Gov. John Bel Edwards and Senate President John Alario. Alario's opposition made the bill unlikely to emerge from the Senate.

Supporters said the bill would cut costs in the nearly $300 million program and encourage students to improve academic performance. Estimates were the increased GPA requirement could save the state $3.2 million to $7.5 million a year, when the higher standard would have started.

Opponents said the change would eliminate aid for thousands of needy students by keeping them from getting TOPS awards. The change, if enacted this year, would have kept more than 1,800 students from being eligible for tuition coverage through TOPS.

As they struggle with persistent budget shortfalls, lawmakers have worried about the ballooning cost of TOPS. This year, for the first time, lawmakers didn't fully fund TOPS, instead covering only 70 percent of tuition costs for eligible students.

But they have been unable to agree on what changes should be made, instead rejecting proposal after proposal each year amid an ongoing disagreement about whether the program should be merit-based or needs-based.

The state operating budget proposal for next year would again provide full tuition coverage for students in the TOPS program. Meanwhile, the 10-member task force is expected to be created by lawmakers to study the program's history and determine ways to ensure its "long-term viability." The task force recommendations will be due to legislative leaders by Feb. 15.