Originally created 01/16/04

Lawmakers discuss ways to save HOPE



ATLANTA - Cool heads and calm tempers prevailed Thursday as lawmakers sat down for their first official hearing on how to protect the HOPE Scholarship for future generations.

But the nearly two dozen legislators in attendance came armed with a hodgepodge of questions - some complex, many controversial.

Nearly every issue that had already caused rhetorical fireworks to fly around the Capitol earlier this week was rehashed during the hearing, including the linking of HOPE to SAT scores, and whether to freeze college tuition as a way to keep HOPE from going broke.

Rep. Louise McBee, D-Athens, co-chairwoman of the HOPE Study Commission, said she was encouraged by the solution-focused tone of the hearing and looked forward to future meetings.

"What I hope is that we can keep the politics out of it," Ms. McBee said. "I think people realize something's got to be done ... this year."

State researchers estimate the HOPE program will face a $141 million deficit by 2007 because the lottery revenue that funds the scholarship isn't keeping up with Georgia's fast-growing college enrollment.

HOPE, which stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally, pays tuition, fees and a book allowance to those graduating high school with a B average.

On Thursday, lawmakers heard an in-depth report on the recommendations of the HOPE commission, which proposed the elimination of book and fee allowances from the scholarship, along with a statewide standard for high school grading.

But some lawmakers who weren't on the commission used the hearing to inquire about other solutions, casting doubt on whether agreement could be reached during this year's session.

Rep. Pat Gardner, D-Atlanta, said she feared low-income families might not be able to cope with the loss of book and fee allowances.

"We don't want to lose good students who are working hard to keep HOPE but can't afford their books," she said after the hearing.

"I think it will enhance the SAT and make it more important to the student taking it," Sen. Joey Brush, R-Martinez, said in a December interview with Morris News Service. "That would only help scores."

Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 589-8424 or brian.basinger@morris.com.