Students proactive over potential changes to HOPE scholarship

By Greg Gelpi

The Georgia Assembly is considering tinkering with the HOPE Scholarship program, but students at Forest Park High School aren't sitting back while their future is debated.

Students are researching the Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally Scholarship and will lobby the legislature based on their findings.

The legislature has talked about modifying the scholarship program, since the lottery, the sole source of funding for the program, won't be able to support the demand in coming years.

"I'm glad that they're asking our opinion," senior B.J. McKinney said. "For us to take initiative like this makes me proud."

Legislators have floated many options for keeping the lottery-funded program solvent, and will use the legislative session to debate the issue.

Students from Susan Lapp's advanced placement government class began the project, and government classes taught by Michael Powell, Geisha Bayless and Scott Freeman joined in.

The students developed a list of fixes and are conducting surveys of the school and community of Forest Park to find which solution is most popular. The students will then compose a report based on their research and will lobby the General Assembly after meeting with and getting tips from a lobbyist from the Georgia Educators Association.

"Every time I hear a politician say something I expect the opposite," senior Michael Griggs said. "Politicians may hear, but they don't listen."

He hopes that legislators pay attention to students, the ones counting on the scholarship, rather than relying only on other politicians.

Any changes in HOPE would go into effect after they graduate they said, but they worry about their younger siblings who follow them.

Any change in HOPE would effect recipients as well as communities with colleges, universities and technical colleges.

Of the 569 students at Mercer Regional Academic Center in McDonough, 150 students are on HOPE Scholarships.

Clayton College & State University has had 11,298 HOPE scholars since the program began in 1993. The scholarships have totaled $31,801,112.30.

State Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, said something must be done with HOPE, but she doesn't support a proposal to tie the scholarship program to SAT scores.

"We don't plan to lose HOPE," Buckner, who was appointed to the higher education committee, said. "We are looking to put some stopgap measures in place so that we don't kill the goose that laid the golden egg."

With economic strain on HOPE, the crunch will get tighter since the Tennessee state lottery began last week, she said. HOPE is funded by the Georgia state lottery.

"That is just a given that that is going to have an impact," Buckner said.

She said she does support other proposals to save the scholarship program, including eliminating coverage of books and fees, eliminating "carved out" scholarships and requiring HOPE scholars to work in-state after graduation.

One piece of legislation would ban anyone convicted of a misdemeanor or felony from receiving a HOPE scholarship.

The "HOPE Scholarship Preservation Act of 2004" would prevent anyone convicted of a felony or misdemeanor from getting a HOPE scholarship.

"Such ineligibility shall be permanent," according to the legislation.

Regardless of what the General Assembly does with HOPE, Buckner said high school seniors should prepare financially for all of the expenses associated with college.