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RICE: Tough choices made, but we still have HOPE

Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly are committed to preserving the financial stability of Georgia’s HOPE programs. That is why the House and Senate joined Deal as he signed House Bill 326 into law on Tuesday. The following highlights some of the changes in the programs.

The HOPE scholarship, HOPE grant and Georgia’s pre-K programs are funded by proceeds from the Georgia Lottery, but over the past several years, Georgia’s HOPE and pre-K programs have paid out more than the lottery has generated. Without change, all reserve funds for these programs would be depleted by July 2012, bankrupting the programs. Therefore, it was vital that leaders worked together in a bipartisan effort to implement HOPE-saving program changes.

House Bill 326 enacts those bi-partisan HOPE-saving changes. Next year, HOPE scholarship recipients attending public colleges and universities will receive 90 percent of 2011 tuition amounts, while students attending private colleges and universities will receive $3,600 for tuition. The financial award will be tied to how much revenue the lottery generates and could vary annually.

The HOPE Scholarship will continue to require a 3.0 GPA but will not cover books, fees or remedial college classes. Additionally, students will only be allowed to regain the scholarships once. Finally, HB 326 will phase in new eligibility standards. One of which, beginning in 2015, requires students to take two advanced level courses while in high school in order to qualify for HOPE.

HB 326 also creates the Zell Miller Scholarship, which offers full tuition to students attending Georgia’s public colleges who graduate from high school with a minimum 3.7 GPA and 1200 on the SAT or 26 on the ACT. To continue receiving the scholarship, students must maintain a 3.3 GPA. Eligible students attending a private college will receive $4,000 for tuition. High school valedictorians and salutatorians will also be awarded the Zell Miller Scholarship.

The HOPE grant pays tuition for Georgians seeking a technical certificate or diploma at one of the state’s technical colleges. In 2010 alone, technical college enrollment increased 25 percent. This has had a tremendous impact on our state’s workforce development needs, and many businesses have touted HOPE as an incentive to locate and create jobs in Georgia. Under HB 326, the HOPE Grant financial award, like the HOPE Scholarship, will be tied to how much revenue the lottery generates and could vary annually. For this fall, students will receive 90 percent of the Fiscal Year 2011 grant award. Recipients must earn a 3.0 by the first checkpoint and the grant will also cover remedial courses.

Finally, I will address pre-K. The Georgia pre-K program serves approximately 84,000 students. Adjustments to the pre-K program will be made through the state’s annual appropriations process. Deal’s updated proposal is based on the feedback of public and private pre-K providers, pre-K teachers, parents, early childhood advocacy organizations and local school systems across the state.

In order to ensure that Georgia pre-K will endure, we will keep a full day model. The school year will be shortened, however, by 20 days. Class size will increase from 20 to 22 students, but the program will add an additional 2,000 pre-K slots. Providers will receive 94 percent of the operating funds they currently receive, and pre-K teachers will receive 90 percent of their current salaries.

In closing, HB 326 will preserve HOPE for the next generation of Georgians, and the legislation would not have been possible without the cooperation of all parties involved. To read the bill in full, go to www.legis.ga.gov and enter HB 326 into the legislative search box.

Tom Rice, R-Norcross, represents District 51 in the Georgia House of Representatives.