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Georgia's HOPE chest

By Jeff Emanuel

Mar 14, 2006

With just two weeks left in the Spring 2006 legislative session, time is running out on a proposed constitutional amendment which would ensure that Georgia’s unique merit-based college scholarship program will remain funded beyond the foreseeable future.

The brainchild of then-Governor Zell Miller, Georgia’s “Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally,” or HOPE, scholarship program rewards students who graduate from a Georgia high school with at least a 3.0 grade point average by providing them a tuition-free education at a Georgia state college, university, or technical college. Students must maintain a B average in college to keep the HOPE benefit, with grades being re-evaluated every 30 attempted academic hours to ensure eligibility. Since the program’s inception in 1993, more than 900,000 students have received benefits, which also include student fee coverage and a textbook allowance.

Miller proposed that this merit-based scholarship be funded by a new state lottery, whose profits were to be used solely for that purpose. Georgia’s location in America’s “Bible belt” ensured that such a morally appealing carrot was necessary to make the inception of a state lottery palatable to the general public. After much public debate, the voters accepted both programs, but a major reason for the lottery’s approval was the promise of its revenue being used only for higher education and pre-kindergarten programs. The dedication of lottery funds to the HOPE scholarship lasted all the way until the program ran a surplus, at which time Democrats in the state assembly expanded lottery proceed-eligible projects to include technological upgrades in public schools and related training for teachers, as well as other, less-defined “hometown projects.”

This expansion may seem beneficial on the surface, but, as is true everywhere, Georgia lawmakers have fought to take ever-increasing amounts of these benefits home to their individual districts as vote-buying pork projects. $1.8 billion in lottery proceeds have now been spent on projects other than HOPE scholarships and pre-kindergarten classes, and lawmakers have been forced to begin talking about cutting the program’s budget. College enrollment has risen almost 10 percent in Georgia since HOPE’s inception; however, the combination of that increase in attendance, the fact that many already in college qualify for the program, and the increase in pork spending have created an incredible financial strain. In 2004, a panel studying the program’s future recommended that Governor Perdue cut book and fee payments to scholarship students, and more cuts are inevitable if the program’s funding situation remains unchanged.

In an effort to safeguard the HOPE scholarship for the future, and to guarantee that it remains funded to the fullest extent possible, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue recently proposed what he called the “HOPE Chest” amendment. This measure would go a long way in securing this unique merit-based scholarship program by amending Georgia’s state constitution to “protect lottery funds so that they may be reserved only for the HOPE Scholarship Program and other tuition grants, scholarships, or loans to enable citizens of this state to attend colleges and universities within this state; for voluntary pre-kindergarten; and for educational shortfall reserves.”

SR 655, currently in the Georgia state Senate, would put the HOPE Chest amendment on the statewide ballot in November, allowing Georgia’s voters to decide for themselves whether or not they want to guarantee further their children’s affordable academic futures. However, this attempt to give citizens a say in the governing process has been met with fierce partisan resistance. The measure has twice been voted down in 35-20, party-line votes, falling just three votes short of the two-thirds majority needed in the 56-member body to amend the state constitution. One final vote on the measure may be held, but Democrats, who claimed they were "shut out of the process" and had a "better plan" which was "being rejected for political purposes," are not expected to change their minds.

The promise of HOPE has encouraged students to excel at both the secondary and the university level. However, the decision of Democrats to play the role of the opposition, even when it comes to safeguarding a vital educational benefit, and to attempt to kill this proposed amendment in favor of securing lottery funds for pet projects, will only plunge the program into greater crisis. Without some Democrats finding the courage necessary to cross the aisle and do what is right for the educational future of the Georgia’s children, the state’s model program for merit-based scholarship, which has served as the inspiration for many similar elsewhere, will almost certainly wither on the vine.

Jeff Emanuel, a Special Operations military veteran, studies Classics at the University of Georgia. He is also a contributing editor for conservative web log, and is a columnist for the Athens, GA Banner-Herald newspaper.

Copyright © 2006

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