Democrats to fight to spare rural students

ATLANTA --- Changes to the HOPE scholarship program were approved in a 30-minute Senate committee meeting Friday, but minority Democrats say they plan to introduce amendments next week on the Senate floor that were blocked in committee.


Gov. Nathan Deal worked with Republican leaders in the House and Senate and won the endorsement of House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams for a plan to save more than $130 million a year and keep the program from having to use reserves.

That plan would reduce the scholarship to 90 percent of current tuition for all but the 10 percent of students who score 1,200 on the SAT and graduate from high school with a 3.7 grade-point average. That top 3 percent of students would continue to have all of their tuition covered.

The plan quickly sailed through the House.

Senate Democrats had intended to offer proposals Friday in the Senate Higher Education Committee, but Chairman Jim Butterworth, R-Cornelia, ruled that only some technical revisions were permitted. The bill was approved on a 5-2 party-line vote.

"We find that we don't have the same power to amend the bill as the House Higher Education Committee," said Sen. Curt Thompson, one of three Democrats on the Senate committee.

Senate Democratic Leader Robert Brown of Macon said Butterworth has broken the faith that led House Democrats to support Deal's plan.

"This is no longer a bipartisan bill," Brown said. "It never really was."

The full Senate will consider the measure Tuesday.

"They're going so fast because they don't want scrutiny of the numbers," said Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta.

Carter said the numbers show the cut will be closer to 20 percent once the Board of Regents raises tuition this spring because Deal's plan no longer adjusts the scholarship when tuition rises.

The Democratic alternative would save the same amount as the Deal plan but do it by capping the income of students' parents at $140,000. That cap would change as lottery revenues rise and fall.

With the income cap, Democrats would have the money to give the full scholarship to all students with a 3.0 GPA, regardless of income. Those in the top 3 percent of their high schools would also have their books and fees covered.

The debate is taking on a regional dimension. That's because under the Deal plan, urban and suburban counties could benefit more because they have higher SAT averages than rural schools. Under the Democratic income cap, 82 counties would have no students facing scholarship cuts because the families there all fall under the cutoff.

Deal and other Republicans have repeatedly rejected calls for an income cap. They argue the scholarship's popularity is based on the fact that any student with the best grades can qualify, regardless of family income.


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