(Folks, This piece I wrote runs on the Monday education page, paired with this column by Gov. Nathan Deal.)
The debate in the Legislature over the HOPE scholarship changes provoked many dramatic speeches, but the most personal was delivered by state Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna.
Evans is the exact student that Gov. Zell Miller, a son of hardscrabble Georgia, envisioned when he launched HOPE in 1994. Growing up in Ringgold to parents who labored in carpet mills, Evans was smart, but poor. She was not raised in a household that read the classics or discussed poetry around the table. Still, she graduated in the top 10 percent of her class.
Despite her accomplishments, Evans today would not qualify for the full HOPE funding that enabled her to attend the University of Georgia.
And that’s because she barely broke a 1,000 on the SAT.
“Hard work can get you a higher GPA, but hard work will not always get you a higher SAT,” Evans said. “I could not make up what I didn’t have 18 years sitting around the dinner table talking. You cannot dream what you don’t know.”
Full HOPE — now the Zell Miller scholarship — goes only to students with a 3.7 grade point average and at least a 1,200 on the 1,600-scale SAT.
Students with a 3.0 high school GPA earn HOPE Lite, which will pay about 90 percent of tuition next year but possibly far less in the future if demand increases. HOPE no longer covers any books or fees
SAT scores correlate with the income and educational attainment of a student’s parents, which is why poor teens, whether rural or urban, fall below more affluent suburban counterparts.
In fact, there are swaths of rural Georgia where no students in the top ranks of their classes would have qualified for the full HOPE under the original plan proposed by Gov. Nathan Deal. To prevent a rural revolt, full HOPE now also goes to each high school’s valedictorian and salutatorian so at least two students in a county get it.
A 2003 graduate of the University of Georgia Law School, Evans suggested a sliding income scale for HOPE that would ensure students from Georgia’s poorest families continued to receive full tuition.
Using Georgia State University as an example, she said students who receive only HOPE Lite next year will have to come up with $1,800 to cover their costs or $35 a week.
“It may not sound like that much, but I remember when I was in middle school visiting a friend who was more affluent and her mother said she needed money to run to the store,” Evans said.
“Without thinking, her father pulled $40 out his wallet and gave it to her. That was so much money to me that I thought how can anyone just pull $40 out of their wallet? We have little girls growing up in Ringgold who are going to be hurt by these cuts.”
Evans’ efforts met with defeat, as did another Democratic proposal to impose a $140,000 income cap on HOPE recipients, which would have protected about 94 percent of current HOPE students.
State Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, attempted to persuade rural lawmakers with data showing how the cap would have no impact in many of their counties since no one earned more than $140,000.
He thought he was gaining ground until the governor summoned the Republican caucus to the mansion for 4:30 p.m. cocktails and arm twisting.
“He told them that they had to support his plan, that this was his signature legislation,” said Carter.
Nor could Democrats win support for a plan to expand full HOPE to the top 3 percent of high school seniors, which would have enabled more low-income rural and urban high school graduates to qualify by eliminating the SAT component. (Of the 15,000 African-American students in Georgia who took the SAT last year, only 2.7 percent scored 1,200 or higher.)
That doesn’t mean Democrats won no concessions in the battle over HOPE. Deal’s willingness to fund a 1 percent needs-based loan program, pay for remedial classes for HOPE grant recipients and restore full-day pre-k led House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams to not only vote for the governor’s bill, but to stand with Deal as he announced and signed it.
Still, while House Minority leader Abrams supported the bill because it was the will of her Democratic caucus, state Rep. Abrams did not agree with it, she told a town hall meeting in Decatur last week.
“I am not naive. The governor wanted an African-American to stand with him and he wasn’t going to find one in the Senate,” she said.
Abrams used her bargaining power to help persuade the governor to restore pre-k to full day, calling it an “incredible win for rural Georgia. What did we expect parents of 4-year-olds to do with their children at noon when they worked an hour away?”
What about imposing income caps on families applying for pre-k, someone at the town hall meeting asked.
Abrams said Deal refused to consider income caps for HOPE or pre-k, noting, “We might like him better than Sonny Perdue, but he’s still a Republican.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog.