Amid the hoopla over state funding for the beloved TOPS college scholarship program, it's worth remembering how — and why — the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students got started in the first place. Spoiler alert: It was never intended to be an entitlement for families of means.
The brainchild of billionaire oilman Patrick F. Taylor, TOPS was enacted into state law in 1989. I had the privilege of knowing Pat Taylor. He was a complicated yet incredibly generous man who never forgot that he came from nothing. Taylor credited his success to his education, particularly the full scholarship he got from Louisiana State University.
In 1988, Taylor was invited to speak to 183 struggling students at Livingston Middle School in New Orleans East. Many of the kids in the room that day had already been held back in school, some more than once. By then a rich white Republican, Taylor recognized in that roomful of young black kids the same limited opportunities that he knew as a child, and he had an epiphany.
"How many of you plan to go to college?" Taylor asked.
Few hands went up.
"How many of you would like to go to college?"
Many hands went up.
That was it. Taylor knew what he had to do. Acting on a characteristically charitable impulse, he made the kids in that room a promise: Maintain a B average in a college- prep curriculum and stay out of trouble, and I will make sure you go to college.
Taylor followed up with mentor- ing visits and field trips, keeping tabs on the kids who had accepted his offer. He also kept his promise, and those kids realized the same dream that changed Taylor's life years before.
Years later I met one of those kids — Flozell Daniels, now CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana. Daniels told me how he and his classmates became known as "the original Taylor's Kids." (Pat and Phyllis Taylor had no children of their own, but through their Taylor Foundation and TOPS they have changed the lives of many kids.)
In 1989, Taylor convinced the Louisiana Legislature to enact the "Taylor Plan." It required students to earn a 2.5 GPA in a college-prep curriculum and an ACT score of 18. Like Taylor's original promise, the program was intended to help low- and moderate-income students go to college. To achieve that goal, the law capped family incomes of qualifying students.
Over time, as state finances allowed, the Taylor Plan — which became TOPS — expanded into an entitlement for all students. That gave it a much larger political base, but it's not what Pat Taylor originally envisioned. A wealthy man who came from nothing, he saw TOPS as a way out of poverty.
Pat Taylor died in 2004, but his wife Phyllis and the Taylor Foundation carry on his legacy of hope for kids who, like him, grew up with few prospects for a better life.
Lawmakers who tinker with TOPS should remember Pat Taylor's legacy — and his original intent — and preserve both.