Tennessee Hope Scholarship Changes Look Dead

Although the 2011-2012 Tennessee legislative session is not over, the dust seems to be settling on the life expectancy of bills introduced for changes to the Tennessee Hope Scholarship.   The push to make it harder for eligible students to earn a full lottery-funded Hope Scholarship — approved by the state Senate two weeks ago — ended Monday when the House sponsor, Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville,  indicated he won’t seek its passage this year due to little support in a Senate Subcommittee.

The special Senate committee appointed by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, to consider how to deal with yearly operating deficits in the hope scholarship program since the legislature increased the program four years ago.  But that committee, chaired by Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, prioritized more on the program’s financial deficits and ignored the fact that it has  $390 million or more in reserves that are sufficient to fund the program well into the next 10-15 years even without any changes.

Gresham sponsored the bill through the Senate with Ramsey’s approval, and it passed the Senate 20-10 on April 16 mostly along party lines, with Republicans in support and all but one Democrat, Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville, against.

The Senate bill required students to achieve both ACT and GPA standards to qualify for a full $4,000-per-year Hope grant, beginning with freshmen entering college in the fall of 2015, if the lottery’s funds for education did not set new records each year, independent of whether deficits existed or not. Students who met only one but not both of the standards would be eligible to receive only half of a scholarship instead of a full scholarship.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission determined that about 5,257 less students would have met the requirements  for the full scholarship in the first year, and that lower-income students and minority students would have been disproportionately affected.

The Senate-passed bill would also make different requirements for home-schooled students to win full Hope Scholarships than students in traditional  schools if the proposals had gone into effect in 2015. There is no grade-point average minimum for home-schoolers in current law nor in the bill. The Senate bill would have proposed home-school students to achieve a minimum 21 ACT score and at least 21 on two of the ACT’s four subparts.

Brooks also brought to the subcommittee that in future legislative sessions, it would be up to the finance committees to watch over the scholarship program’s finances and propose action instead of the education committees, where this year’s bill was born.

“I think the thought being that what might be good for future legislatures is to let this issue rest with Finance and if you see a financial issue, then I think it would be a point where you could recommend to Education: Look at some policy adjustments because we think there’s a financial problem. I think the leader on the finance piece has been Education and I think that’s probably misplaced,” Brooks said.

Brooks indicated that there were differences between the House and Senate over an amendment to the bill that would have activated the tougher academic requirements in 2015. Gresham’s amendment, approved by the Senate, would have  specified  lottery proceeds to set new records yearly, while the House version would have required only a $10 million improvement this year and to hold that level over the following two years.

The lottery’s education funds are currently up by more than $22 million in the initial nine months of the current fiscal year over the similar period last year, a substantial increase that the Senate bill would have required be bettered each year.

So, just as in the neighboring state of Georgia, it looks like Tennessee may be backing away from any changes to the Tennessee Hope Scholarship and taking a wait and see approach; however, unlike Georgia, Tennessee seems to have a fiscally responsible program already in place.

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