Twenty years ago this week, the Georgia Legislature gave its approval to the novel idea of a state-run lottery with all proceeds earmarked to support education. A few months later, after voters gave the proposal their own seal of approval, Georgia’s groundbreaking and wildly successful HOPE scholarship program became reality.
Today, however, the program faces significant trouble. Lottery proceeds have flat-lined, while the two programs it supports — subsidized pre-kindergarten and free tuition for good students at state colleges and universities — have become much more costly. By fiscal 2012, the lottery is projected to raise $883 million, while expenses are expected to hit $1.2 billion.
Clearly, something has to give, and the decision won’t be easy. These are high-profile and popular programs, and any cuts that are made will be felt not by bureaucrats but directly by voters.
So let’s go back to the basics: Why were these programs created in the first place? What did Gov. Zell Miller, the leading proponent of lottery-funded education programs, have in mind? What promises were made to the people of Georgia when they cast their votes in favor of the then-controversial idea?
The goal of the college scholarship program was straightforward. As Miller proudly pointed out in 1994, “In other states, the doors of college opportunity are being closed. The cost of college has increased so much that a college degree is out of reach for the families of many middle-class students. But not in Georgia.”
The goal of the pre-k program was similar: Get more Georgia youngsters ready for kindergarten. Repeated studies of pre-k programs have shown that they make a significant difference in the performance of students, with a particular impact on children from lower-income and minority households.
So how do we honor those goals of greater access while bringing expenses back into line with revenues? The best answer, inevitably, involves some sort of means testing.
For more affluent Georgia families, the availability of HOPE does not determine whether their children will go to college. It is a nice financial benefit and a reward for hard work, but it is not a necessity. In fact, as the HOPE program was originally designed, only students from households with incomes of $100,000 or less were eligible for scholarships. (That would be about $150,000 in today’s dollars, or roughly three times the median household income in Georgia.) That limit was dropped once the program began generating more money than expected.
However, rather than impose a hard income cap, as the original plan did, it would be more fair and practical to save money by instituting a sliding scale, with HOPE support diminishing as income rises. Depending how the numbers work out, it might even be possible to guarantee a minimum HOPE benefit for even for the most affluent students, as a reward for academic achievement.
The same approach should be taken with lottery-subsidized, pre-kindergarten programs, which already have a waiting list of 10,000 children.
Today, most children of affluent Georgia families would be attending pre-k programs regardless of the state subsidy, because their parents understand the importance of that investment and because they have the resources to make it happen. The state subsidy is a nice little perk, but not a requirement for enrollment.
For a lot of other families, that’s not the case. Without the subsidy, pre-k is not an option. And those are typically families whose children would benefit most from the program. By means-testing the subsidy, again perhaps using a sliding scale, state leaders could stretch available resources and honor the original intent of the program.
Politically, that might be a hard sell. Both the HOPE scholarship and free pre-k have become popular entitlement programs for the middle and upper classes, funded by lottery tickets bought disproportionately by lower-income Georgians.
But in an era of constrained resources, it makes sense to apply those resources where they will make the most difference. If the aim is to do what’s best for Georgia, rather than to appeal to particular constituencies, state leaders should revamp both the HOPE and pre-k programs to honor their original goal, which was to broaden access to educational opportunity.
– Jay Bookman