The Georgia Senate debated the qualifications to become a Zell Miller scholar this afternoon while discussing House Bill 131, which accords high school students who take dual enrollment college classes the same .5 boost in their final grade that Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate students now earn.
Ultimately, the Senate approved the grade boost for dual enrollment, but voted 33-15 against against an amendment to change how the Zell Miller Scholarship is calculated so that more rural Georgia students would qualify.
Only one group of Georgia college students — those who graduated high school with a 3.7 or higher GPA and scored at least 1200 on the math and reading portions of the SAT test or a 26 on the ACT – now earn full tuition under the changes made to the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship. These students are known as Zell Miller Scholars. Zell Miller is also extended to all high school valedictorians and salutatorians.
State Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, proposed an amendment that would eliminate the SAT qualifier and give Zell Miller to the top 3 percent of students in every graduating high school.
He noted that rural Georgia students earn the scholarship in far fewer numbers than their more affluent metro Atlanta peers because of the SAT component. Research shows that the SAT aligns closely with a student’s socioeconomics; the higher the family income, the higher the SAT score.
“At every single high school, we are going to say if you do everything your community asks of you and you are in the top 3 percent of that high school and you get into college and you meet all the other requirements, you are going to get Zell Miller,” he said.
“In the current system, you get the Zell Miller scholarship if you have a certain GPA and a certain SAT score. If you believe that the SAT is the best way to judge hard work and merit, then I think you should look at following numbers,” said Carter, pointing to a slide on the screen behind him that showed a geographic imbalance in Miller scholars.
In Senate District 11 in southwest Georgia, there were 73 Zell Miller scholars, costing the state $396,666 in lottery proceeds. However, in Senate District 56 in north Fulton, there were 448 Zell Miller scholars who collectively receive $2.7 million in HOPE funds.
In Senate District 7 in southeast Georgia, there were 108 scholars, costing the state $535, 861. Carter contrasted that with the 570 Miller scholars in Fulton/Gwinnett Senate District 48 who cost the state $3.5 million. “That is almost 10 times as much money as we spend in rural Georgia,” said Carter.
“Does that mean there is more merit in those Senate districts? This is equal population, equal population, and, yet, we say, they have that much more merit that we are going to spend that much more to educate those kids.” said Carter. “When we sit here and say the best and the brightest, apparently all the best and the brightest live in Fulton County. Or Gwinnett.”
“The bottom line is that we don’t do this right,” said Carter. “It’s already an entitlement program for the wealthiest people in the state, and now we’re doubling down on that and we’re depriving the people who need it the most and who worked arguably the hardest to get where they are.”
His colleagues didn’t agree, voting down his amendment and accusing him of attempting to dumb down the Zell Miller Scholarship.
State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, argued that the 3 percent threshold was not as great a measure of merit as GPA and SAT. Millar suggested students could be in the top 3 percent of their graduating class and have a 2.7 GPA. (I would doubt that very much.)
Carter argued that his top 3 percent criteria was actually more rigorous since many students, especially in metro Atlanta, aren’t in the top 3 percent of their classes despite having a 3.7 GPA. (At my high school, kids in the top 3 percent have a 4.0 or higher.)
“We are talking a very high standard, the top 3 percent of every single high school class,” said Carter. “A lot of people in the Zell Miller Scholarship program are not in the top 3 percent of their high school. This is just as rigorous, if not more. Do you want a standard, a high merit-based standard, that respects every single community in the state, or do you want one that only respects a very small number of communities.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog