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Time for a review of lottery revenues

  • Written by Steve Cohen
I have read with concern about the legislation before the (Tennessee) General Assembly to change the academic standards by which lottery HOPE scholarships are awarded.
 Steve Cohen
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen
I have read with concern about the legislation before the (Tennessee) General Assembly to change the academic standards by which lottery HOPE scholarships are awarded.

The impetus for the change is ostensibly the fear that long-term lottery revenues will be insufficient to fund scholarships. While I do not concur, before denying students the opportunity to receive a HOPE scholarship, the expenditure of all lottery revenues should be examined.

As sponsor of the lottery referendum legislation, as well as the laws enacting the lottery and creating the scholarship program, I know the intent of the law. The HOPE scholarship was designed not only to reward but to inspire achievement. High school students who perform well academically can receive a college education without having to work a second job or graduate saddled with enormous debt.

The state constitution requires lottery funds go first to scholarships, before pre-kindergarten, before capital outlay and before funds are designated “excess.” Also, the original plan was for HOPE scholarships to cover a student’s full tuition. However, lottery scholarships have never been fully funded and have declined from three-quarters scholarships to covering only about 66 percent of tuition.

Despite awarding only partial scholarships, lottery funds have been diverted to other programs and pet projects by deeming lottery funds as “excess.” A prime example of this is the $90 million appropriated to “green” schools, over half of which remains unused but has not been returned to the scholarship program. When considering the future of lottery scholarships, everything should be on the table to ensure the solvency of the program, from those funds deemed “excess” to the costs of operating the lottery, including salaries.

Dueling qualifications

While revisiting the academic standards for HOPE scholarship recipients, a review of the legislative history of the program would be useful. After the lottery was approved by the voters in November 2002, a study committee composed of legislators, educators and academics closely examined other states’ programs. When the General Assembly session began in 2003, legislation modeled on the highly successful Georgia HOPE program, which featured full scholarships and required a 3.0 grade-point average, was introduced. A 3.0 GPA is a good predictor of a student’s college performance.

During the legislative debate, concerns were raised about the possibility of grade inflation, so the requirement for an ACT score was added as a qualification. The scholarship legislation as introduced required a GPA of 3.0 AND a minimum ACT score of 19. Because of political shenanigans, the language was changed to require either a GPA of 3.0 OR an ACT score of 19, meaning that a student who had not performed well in high school but scored a 19 ACT (2 points below the national average) could get a scholarship.

In the succeeding General Assembly, the ACT requirement was raised to 21 which, while an improvement, still permits students to receive a scholarship based on nothing more than an average ACT score. The Tennessee HOPE scholarship is the only college scholarship in the United States based on an average ACT score.

The original bill drafted to enact HOPE scholarships was a labor of love for legislators and educators to create the best system possible. Revisiting the HOPE scholarship program history would be a fruitful enterprise for the current General Assembly, with the goal being a lottery scholarship program that is solvent into the future and that encourages students toward excellence.

(Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) represents the Ninth Congressional District. Contact him via http://cohen.house.gov/)

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