HUCKABY: Let's keep giving kids the HOPE they deserve

Darrell Huckaby

Darrell Huckaby

God bless Zell Miller. Now there was a governor.

No. I mean really. Zell Miller had the best interest of the people of Georgia at heart in every decision he made — and he wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he believed to be right. Maybe it was his stern mountain upbringing. Maybe it was the influence of his mother, who had the gumption to haul rocks from the local river by hand to build a home for her family. Perhaps it was the training he received in the United States Marine Corps.

Whatever it was that forged him into the man he would become, Zell Miller’s legislation has done more for me and my family, directly, than that of any other governor, or perhaps all the governors in my lifetime combined.

Most of the benefits are in the area of education and have been paid for by the Georgia Lottery, which I opposed on moral grounds.

I was wrong.

The lottery has been a boon to the state of Georgia and the lottery tickets some people line up to buy with their Friday paychecks are the only taxes a lot of Georgians pay.

When my first two children entered 4-year-old Pre-K my lovely wife, Lisa, and I had to foot the bill. When our youngest child, Jenna, turned 4, she got to go to preschool courtesy of the state of Georgia. Thank you, Zell Miller. I don’t know how much money we saved that year, but it was probably at least a grand, maybe two.

For the first 20 years of my teaching career I sat around regretting not having gotten my master’s degree — and the pay raise that went with it. Zell Miller instituted the HOPE teachers’ scholarship. I was able to return to school and complete my master’s on the state’s dime. I paid the state back by teaching in a field of need for a set number of years. Win-win.

But the big payoff for my family and thousands of others just like us was the lottery funded HOPE scholarship. My oldest child went through school on HOPE and my younger children are in the process. It is the best thing that has happened to higher education in Georgia since 12th grade was added.

HOPE means Helping Outstanding Pupils Excel.

What a grand and novel idea. Let’s help all outstanding pupils. Not just the poor ones. Not just the underprivileged ones. And don’t get your shorts in a bunch — I was raised poor and underprivileged, at least according to current government standards. I’m all for helping those groups.

But the HOPE scholarship is not about economic conditions. It is about what the name implies; it is about outstanding pupils. Let’s help the best and brightest. Let’s keep them in this state. Let’s pay their college tuition for four or five years — as long as they have projected success by obtaining a B average throughout high school (3.0) and as long as they keep that 3.0 throughout college.

“Keep HOPE alive!” has become the rallying cry on campuses from the golden spires of North Georgia College in Dahlonega to the red-tiled roofs of Valdosta State University — and in households from Rabun Gap to Tybee Light.

Georgia students may not be able to take the SAT, but we can stay in state and get a college education — as long as we are willing to apply ourselves and make good grades.

And for the past 15 years the quality of education at Georgia colleges and universities has steadily risen as the best and brightest have stayed home to pursue an education. Why pay out-of-state fees in Alabama or North Carolina or Florida when your tuition is covered in Georgia — and the educational opportunities are sound.

But now the state of Georgia says the money is gone. They are saying that lottery earnings are no longer supporting the cost of the HOPE scholarship program and that this year they will have to dip into the billion dollar reserve fund to make ends meet. This means, of course, that cuts will have to be made next year.

So naturally, the state of Georgia is going to continue to reward the best and brightest by toughening up the standards. They are going to come up with a system to keep from wasting millions and millions of dollars on students who are not really outstanding and only qualify for HOPE because they attend schools in systems with drastically inflated grades. They are going to institute a screening process to weed out those students so the truly outstanding pupils will continue to stay at home and bring academic prestige to our own institutes of higher learning.

Well, actually, they aren’t. They are going to try and put an income ceiling on HOPE recipients — and a pretty low one at that. If you and your spouse have a combined annual income of $66,000, there is no hope for you to have HOPE.

Sorry. You shouldn’t have been such over-achievers. You shouldn’t have both worked for a living. Obviously if you earn $66,001 you can afford to pay that extra $8,000 or $9,000 in tuition for your child.

Oh, well. It was good while it lasted. And thanks, Gov. Miller. If you ever run for office again, I promise I will vote for you this time.

Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net.