TOPS on the bubble
These are perilous times for Louisiana's beloved TOPS college scholarship program. The state is woefully short of cash — by an estimated $750 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — and if that gap isn't closed there's virtually no way TOPS can survive in its present form.
State lawmakers have filed at least 18 bills dealing with TOPS. Some of them merely tinker with the edges while others propose substantial changes. There are no easy options.
As legislators and the public ponder the future of TOPS, a look at the program's history offers some lessons. Patrick F. Taylor, the late Republican oilman who conceived the scholarship program in 1988, hardly would recognize some aspects of his legacy today.
For starters, Taylor designed the program for high school kids from needy circumstances, not those from well-off families. He personally underwrote college costs for the first class of "Taylor's Kids" at Livingston Middle School. During a speech there, he promised to pay college tuition for every kid who made good grades, took college prep courses and stayed out of trouble. He kept his word. Beyond that, he kept in touch with that first class into their adulthood — I know this because I've met some of them over the years.
Taylor was so convinced of the power of education to transform lives that he sold then-Gov. Buddy Roemer on the idea of making it a state-sponsored program. The original Louisiana Taylor Plan thus became law in 1989. It was the first state-funded, merit-based college tuition program in America. There was an income cap of $35,000 — because Taylor believed poor families faced the greatest difficulties getting their kids through college.
Over the years the program's scope expanded to the point where it no longer has an income cap. If the state can afford it, there are good arguments for trying to keep our brightest kids in state schools. But TOPS today no longer serves primarily kids from poor families, and it now rivals the homestead exemption among Louisiana's sacred cows.
As the state slashed funding for public colleges and universities under Gov. Bobby Jindal — while "offsetting" the cuts with tuition increases — the cost of TOPS, which covers tuition for qualifying students, skyrocketed. Now it's a target for budget cutters.
Last year, lawmakers enacted changes to TOPS that would preserve its core mission but begin to contain costs. Taylor's widow and current TOPS champion Phyllis Taylor supported the reforms, but Jindal vetoed the measure on the pretext of preserving TOPS. The effect of his veto was exactly the opposite.
It's interesting to hear conservative (mostly Republican) lawmakers talk about raising the academic bar for TOPS rather than lowering the income cap. I suspect few if any of them actually knew Pat Taylor. I did. He was a genuine conservative, and he had a deep well of empathy and generosity toward the less fortunate.
Hopefully, lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards will find a way to preserve Taylor's legacy. Or at least, not betray it.