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BUTLER, HENSON: Restore HOPE plan gives kids help they need

The HOPE Scholarship as we know it is under attack. For almost two decades, the HOPE Scholarship has ensured that Georgia’s students had an opportunity to continue their education. That is all about to change.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal, which passed the House this week, will break HOPE’s promise and no longer fund full tuition. Instead, the amount of the scholarship will change every year based on lottery revenue. This fall, there will be about a 20 percent cut to the scholarship. The cost to students will likely rise every year. If tuition and lottery revenues maintain their current trajectories, in 10 years HOPE could fund less than half of tuition. In other words, under this proposal, the HOPE Scholarship will gradually deteriorate and the burden on students and families will grow.

The governor’s proposal also cuts Georgia’s pre-k program to a half day program. Pre-k and early learning provide the single best return on investment of state education dollars. Changing the structure of pre-k to a half day program will have a disastrous effect for students, teachers and families.

To be clear, we must do something: HOPE cannot pay for itself under the current system and it must be reformed. But there is a better way.

A group of senators has proposed a plan to restore HOPE for the future. The Restore HOPE Plan achieves exactly the same savings as the governor’s proposal while maximizing the number of students who receive the full tuition HOPE Scholarship and restoring pre-k. While this plan incorporates some of the governor’s ideas, like eliminating the payments for books and fees, there are substantial differences. As a result, we are left with a real choice.

Under Restore HOPE, the HOPE Scholarship would be restored for all Georgians with an annual family income up to $140,000. This covers 94 percent of all Georgia families. This means that in Gwinnett County, 84.6 percent of students would receive the full HOPE scholarship. In DeKalb County, 89.2 percent would receive all HOPE.

Restore HOPE provides that the eligible income would be adjusted every year based on lottery revenues to maximize the number of students who receive HOPE. Families who do not qualify would be eligible for a low interest loan to cover tuition, the Zell Miller Scholarship program, and most would receive a federal $2,500 tax credit. The low interest loan would be forgiven if a student agrees to teach science or math in public schools after graduation.

Restore HOPE also expands the proposed Zell Miller Scholarship, aimed at the best and brightest in our communities. Under Restore HOPE, every student who finishes in the top 3 percent of his or her high school class would receive full tuition, as well as payments for books and fees.

The Restore HOPE Plan will restore funding for Georgia’s full day pre-k program through a 2 percent increase in lottery revenue paid into the education account. This change would bring the Georgia Lottery Corporation into line with other similar-sized state lotteries.

In DeKalb and Gwinnett Counties, the difference between the two plans is stark. For example, under the governor’s proposal, every student at Georgia Perimeter College would face a 20 percent cut in their scholarship this fall and additional cost increases every year. Under the Restore HOPE Plan, 90 percent of students at Georgia Perimeter would retain their full HOPE scholarship. The choice is clear: We can choose to maximize HOPE for the greatest number of students possible or we can break HOPE’s promise and end HOPE for everyone.

Sen. Gloria Butler is the vice-chair of finance for the Senate Democratic Caucus and represents the 55th Senate district. This includes parts of DeKalb and Gwinnett Counties.

Sen. Steven Henson is Democratic Whip in the Senate. He represents the 41st district, which includes parts of DeKalb and Gwinnett Counties.