Guest Post: HOPE Grant Proposal by Gov. Deal and Rep. Evans a Rare Victory for a Good Idea

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The following is written by Seth C. Clark, a Democratic political operative who currently serves as Chief of Staff to State Representative Stacey Evans. I asked him to consider writing it after we had an exchange on Twitter and I found him to be both agreeable, and well-informed. I’ll reply to several of the points he makes in the coming days.

Todd Rehm, Editor

by Seth C. Clark

Last Thursday something happened under the Gold Dome that rarely happens in politics. A good idea rose above party bickering. Democratic Representative Stacey Evans stood behind Republican Governor Deal as he announced that an idea that had been proposed by Evans and other Democrats for two years was worthy not just of his support, but also the Lt. Governor’s, the Speaker’s, and that of leadership in both legislative chambers.

There was no backroom deal struck, no votes traded. It was the merit of the proposal that brought together these political adversaries. Governor Deal did not endorse some of the idea, or propose to tweak the idea. He endorsed Evans’s proposal as is.

Representative Evans’s idea was simple: lower the GPA requirement for the HOPE Grant from a 3.0 to a 2.0. But it was by no means new. That’s the way the HOPE Grant worked for two decades.

The HOPE Grant only serves Georgia’s technical colleges and was never intended to be a merit based scholarship like its counterpart program, the HOPE Scholarship. Governor Zell Miller intended for the Grant to serve as a workforce development program and not a merit based program, which is exactly what it successfully was for 20+ years.

Don’t believe me?  Perhaps Governor Miller is more convincing. In a speech for the National Council on Competitiveness at MIT in March of 1998 Governor Miller said the following:

“Those who don’t have a B average or don’t want to go to college can get free tuition and a book allowance for a diploma program – that’s usually 18 months or a two-year program – at a post secondary technical school.”

The 3.0 GPA requirement was hastily dropped into the overarching HOPE Changes two years ago. Its vehicle, HB 326, was rushed through the General Assembly in less than 16 days.  Differentiating between the Technical Colleges and University System was overlooked and Governor Miller’s workforce development program gutted.

In one year, almost 10,000 HOPE Grant recipients left TCSG due to an unprecedented conflation of the Grant and the Scholarship. But the hemorrhaging at the Technical Colleges did not stop there.

The Technical Colleges were hurt even further because in that same bill, the General Assembly tied the award amount for both the Grant and the Scholarship to the previous year’s lottery revenues.

This resulted in some 30,000 families not being able to afford tuition at Georgia’s technical schools the first year after these changes went into effect.

Rep. Evans’s proposal was intended to address the former group of students, those impacted directly from the new GPA requirement for a workforce development program.

Democrats in both the House and Senate proposed this measure within the first week of this legislative session. It gained support of chambers of commerce, technical college presidents, and eventually the Governor.

OPB and the technical colleges estimated that between 3,600 and 10,000 students will regain access to a technical education costing the state only 5 to 8 million dollars and thus, the assembly lines that so desperately need workers when this proposal becomes law.

The criticism of the proposal has been two fold, and in my opinion, both portray a lack of understanding of how the HOPE Grant affects technical colleges themselves.

The first criticism is that a 2.0 GPA requirement is setting the bar at mediocrity. This argument relies on the conflation of the Grant and Scholarship and scares people into believing that Democrats – and now, most Republicans – are proposing letting someone with a 2.5 attend UGA for free, which is completely false. The HOPE Grant has not, and will not ever apply to traditional colleges.

According to TCSG, the average technical college student is a 28-year-old woman with a full time job making less than $40,000 a year. If we must argue merit for a workforce development measure, arguing that her GPA of a 2.5 is mediocre given those facts is laughable.

The second is that this proposal didn’t go far enough and that students suffer from trading the well-being of some students for others.

Let’s be clear. This proposal will allow every student that was forced to leave the technical college system because of the 2011 addition of the GPA requirement to return.

Not one student is hurt from this. The remaining 30,000 students were hurt because lottery revenues were tied to the award amount. There was no deal struck that traded the well being of those 30,000 students. A completely different proposal must be made to bring them back into TCSG’s fold—we have to once again, fully fund the HOPE Grant.

The history of the HOPE Grant matters here, as does the differentiation of the types of students affected by the 2011 changes to HOPE. We cannot confuse a merit-based scholarship with a workforce development measure.

Thursday was a win, not just for Democrats – because the Governor endorsed one of our major platform issues during our Nadir in Georgia politics – but for a good idea in general.  This should be celebrated by all and not derailed because of misunderstanding regarding who is served by HOPE and how HOPE serves them.

For full disclosure, I serve as Chief of Staff to Representative Stacey Evans.

Seth Clark is a Monroe County native. He attended Georgia State University and studied history and political science. Before entering politics, he served as the Legal Director at the Homeless Experience Legal Protection clinic in Atlanta and two terms as an AmeriCorps member. He served as  Senator Jason Carter’s legislative aide during the 2012 legislative session. He has worked on several Democratic campaigns in the Atlanta and middle Georgia area. He serves on the Board of Governors for the Red Clay Democrats and writes for the advocacy group Better Georgia.

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