Lawmakers nearing agreement on key piece of lottery legislation - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Lawmakers nearing agreement on key piece of lottery legislation

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle say they're nearing agreement on a key piece of lottery scholarship legislation that would allow more students to graduate in Tennessee.

The end of session last year was delayed for hours because lawmakers couldn't agree on a bill that would change the rules for keeping a lottery-funded HOPE scholarship. At the center of the conflict was a proposal to lower the cumulative grade point average needed to keep the merit-based scholarship.

The measure passed the House 94-1, but Senate leaders decided against a Senate vote before finally adjourning.

Lawmakers now say they're hammering out their differences and hope to soon have legislation that will pass the Senate.

"I feel there's a better degree of understanding of each other's position," said House Education Committee Chairman Les Winningham, D-Huntsville. "We're going to make it work."

Under current rules, a student must be enrolled full time in college, have a GPA of at least 2.75 after the freshman year and a cumulative 3.0 GPA for subsequent years to keep the scholarship.

Democrats, including Gov. Phil Bredesen, believe reducing the required cumulative GPA to 2.75 would allow more students to keep the scholarships.

"It will keep them in school and they will be able to graduate," said Rep. Ulysses Jones, a Memphis Democrat and member of the House Education Committee. "With a 3.0, we have a lot of kids that are not graduating."

But opponents have said dropping the GPA would lower standards and reflect badly on a state that perennially ranks in the lower percentile when it comes to education.

However, figures released earlier this year by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission are changing some minds. THEC reported that 50 percent of students lost their HOPE scholarships after their first year in college and 68 percent by their fourth year.

Lawmakers and education officials say part of the reason students don't always meet the mark is because they're faced with other tasks - such as working full time - in addition to going to school.

"At first I wasn't in favor of it," said Sen. Bill Ketron of reducing the retention GPA. But the Murfreesboro Republican and Senate Education Committee member said he now realizes that students should be helped on the front end rather than "throwing cold water on them and trying to defeat them before they even get a foot hold."

House Minority Leader Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, agreed.

"I think an overwhelming number of my members do realize that once a student does get in college, that it's a whole new ballgame and perhaps they need the ability to have a little more leeway."

There are 977,000 working-age adults in Tennessee with an associate's degree or more, according to THEC. That's 29.9 percent of the state's working-age adults, compared to a national rate of 37.2 percent.

Most lawmakers agree on doing what's necessary to help more students graduate in Tennessee, but they also want to stay within the state's budget.

Donald Heller, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University, said lowering the retention GPA would likely cost the state more money.

"Now, instead of 50 percent losing it, you've got more students keeping their scholarships," he said.

Lawmakers have about $37 million available to them without dipping into the state's nearly $410 million in lottery reserves, according to THEC officials. They estimate it will cost roughly $17 million to lower the retention GPA. 

"There are different ways to come to a compromise on it, but they could afford a 2.75," said David Wright, THEC's chief policy officer. "It would just limit other options."

One retention proposal would let students with a B-minus average keep their grants with a small reduction in the scholarship amount as an incentive to work back to a B - a proposal Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has said he supports.

"I'd like to see an incentive for people to go back to a 3.0," said the Blountville Republican. "But at the same time, they don't have to drop out of school because of it."

Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said he just wants to see more students awarded a scholarship.

"The goal of the lottery should be to expand opportunity," he said.

Currently, the scholarships are up to $4,000 for traditional four-year colleges and $2,000 for two-year institutions.

Lawmakers are reviewing a slew of other lottery-related proposals, including one by Bredesen that would set aside $200 million from lottery reserves to create an endowment to help pay for college education for 15,000 more Tennesseans each year.

"There's not a single proposal out there ... that's not a very good idea," said Senate Education Chairwoman Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville. "It's just that we're trying to pick the best of those good ideas."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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