Georgia Democrats are conducting a statewide listening and speaking tour this week to gather support for a plan that would allow current high school seniors and college students to retain their full HOPE Scholarships.
The Special Committee to Restore HOPE, a group of House and Senate Democrats, is meeting with students, parents and educators around the state to discuss recent changes to the scholarship and present alternative solutions.
Wednesday, the group passed through Statesboro en route to Savannah State University for its fourth stop - the tour kicked off Monday in Athens.
"There is hope for HOPE," said Senate Democratic Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon). "What we are saying is: let's look at everything; put all of the options on the table and see what the best options are to give the best benefit to the students and taxpayers of Georgia."
A vote last month by the state legislature decoupled HOPE from tuition, meaning the scholarship will no longer pay the full cost of college tuition for Georgia students with 3.0 grade point averages. Changes also no longer allow HOPE to pay for any books or college fees.
The Democratic lawmakers are now touring college towns to urge people to reach out to Gov. Nathan Deal, and convince the governor to grandfather incoming freshman and existing HOPE recipients into the old scholarship formula.
They also are discussing an alternative proposal for HOPE reform that maximizes the number of students who can receive full tuition scholarships.
"When HOPE was created, it promised that if you work hard and achieve, then you will have a chance to go into higher education, even if your family did not have economic resources for you to do so," Brown said. "The law recently passed is breaking the promise that HOPE made to the students who currently have the scholarship and to the citizens of this state who agreed to have gambling as a source of revenue for students to be able to receive higher education."
Current passed legislation allows HOPE to still pay 90 percent of current tuition, and they also created a new Zell Miller Scholarship that pays full tuition for students who score at least 1,200 on the SAT and have a 3.7 GPA.
The committee contends that the Zell Miller Scholarship will benefit students not in need of additional resources, and say an alternative proposal could provide full tuition to more students while saving more money than the governor's plan.
"When you decide that students need a 3.7 GPA and a 1,200 on the SAT, you are excluding a vast number of students, particular those from rural Georgia and inner-cities," said Brown. "We don't deny that something has to be done, it is just that we think what is being done is not the right way to do it."
The Democratic committee is proposing a plan in which tuition fees are paid in full to students coming from a family with an income of less than $140,000. When HOPE was started in 1991, the original legislation contained a similar income-qualifying cap, but it was eliminated as profits from the Georgia Lottery grew.
According to the committee, the cap would provide the scholarship to more students throughout the state, instead of rewarding the majority of funds to students from more affluent regions and schools.
"If you grow up in a family that makes less than $35,000 per year, you have a 5-percent chance at going to college," said State Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna). "If you grow up in a family that makes $95,000 or more, you have a 75-percent chance of going."
"The question becomes: Do we maintain the HOPE Scholarship as a scholarship that maximizes the number of students who can go to college and afford to graduate, or do we transform it into a program that essentially sends certain kids from select high schools to Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia," said State Sen. Jason Carter.
This fall, students across the state and Bulloch County would receive about 80 percent of their tuition costs from HOPE under the new legislation, according to the committee. Per the alternate proposal, about 95 percent of HOPE scholars from Bulloch would receive full funds, Carter said.
Instead, the number would drop and continue to do so, he said.
"The best-case scenario under the governor's plan is that in 10 years HOPE will pay just 50 percent of tuition at Georgia Southern. We really think it will be less than that," Carter said. "Every single year, more people are going to be shut out of college because of their finances. That is the opposite of what the scholarship was designed to do in our view."
The Democrats' plan to at least grandfather students currently with, or promised HOPE Scholarships, into the old program would cost an estimated $58 to $180 million.
With lottery reserves projected to reach $681 million, $242 million of which is available to move, "the resources are there to grandfather in seniors in high school and current HOPE scholars," Brown said.
Deal can grandfather in the current crop of students without legislative approval, Carter said, but Democrats also plan to submit a bill during a special legislative session planned this summer on redistricting or during next year's regular session.
"This debate was rushed so fast, in part, because they did not want people to scrutinize numbers and think about what would happen in 10 years," Carter said. "One of the things that was missed is that we have the ability to keep the HOPE promise to current students."
Carter introduced an amendment to grandfather in current students during this year's HOPE debate, but the legislation was defeated along a straight party-line vote in the Senate.
In regard to a $140,000 income cap, Gov. Deal expressed opposition, claiming such a cap could cause top students from more affluent families to attend school out of state.
With recent changes, "you are really talking about cutting the HOPE Scholarship for rural Georgia in a very substantial way," said Carter. "This is not a statewide program anymore."
The effect fewer HOPE dollars will have, according to the Senator, extends beyond schools.
"In a city like Statesboro, that has 6,700 HOPE scholars (among Georgia Southern, Ogeechee Technical College and East Georgia College), if every student has $200 fewer in their pocket every month, you're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars that isn't going into the Statesboro economy each month."
Jeff Harrison can be reached at 912-489-9454.