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Changes to TOPS awards target workforce training, home-schooled students


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Lawmakers advanced proposals Tuesday to end part of Louisiana’s popular state-funded college scholarship program and place other awards within easier reach of home-schooled students.

Legislation is moving forward to end the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) Tech Award, which provides $6,000 per academic year for students to attend the public or for-profit two-year in-state school of their choice.

House Bill 452, by Rep. Vinney St. Blanc, R-Franklin, gained approval Tuesday from the House Committee on Education. It would terminate the TOPS Tech Award in four years. In its place, he wants the state to add money to a needs-based grant program for students to attend two-year schools in Louisiana and pursue training for professions in high demand.

Interest has ebbed in the TOPS Tech Award over the past decade, according to St. Blanc. He cited numbers from 2014-2022 that indicate 77% of students eligible for the program turned down the scholarship. Last year, the Tech Award accounted for just over $6.1 million or 10% of the total money handed out in TOPS assistance.

“There’s a potential workforce that remains inactive and not participating in educational training that could lead to meaningful employment,” St. Blanc told the committee.

The three more popular levels of TOPS — Honors, Performance and Opportunity awards — are provided to students to attend four-year schools. The amount they receive is based their ACT or SAT score and grade point average.

Qualifications for the TOPS Tech Award are the lowest – a 2.5 grade point average in TOPS core curriculum courses and a score of at least 17 on the ACT.

“TOPS Tech became known as a consolation prize,” said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, who joined St. Blanc to pitch his bill to the committee.

Sullivan and St. Blanc said they want to place more state resources behind the M.J. Foster Promise Program, which covers $3,200 in tuition a year for students who want to enter five fields with workforce needs in Louisiana: information technology, manufacturing, construction, transportation logistics, and health care.

There are no academic qualifying standards to receive money from the Foster Promise Program other than holding a high school diploma or its equivalent. Recipients must be at least 21 years old, but Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, has sponsored a bill that would lower the age to 17. It awaits debate on the House floor.

Demand already exceeds the money available for the Foster Promise Program. It’s currently capped at $10 annually, an amount Sullivan said is reached in the fall semester, leaving students without assistance for the spring. Sen. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, has proposed legislation to increase the Foster Promise Program cap to $40 million. His bill awaits Senate floor consideration.

The TOPS Tech Award has cost the state an average of $6.1 million over the past five school years, according Legislative Fiscal Office figures accompanying St. Blanc’s bill.

Citing Louisiana Workforce Commission figures, Sullivan said 41.5% of people ages 25-64 in Louisiana are either not working, looking for work or receiving unemployment benefits. That places the state eighth from the bottom nationally in terms of its inactive workforce, he said.

Catherine Jennings, a guidance counselor at Jennings High School, was the lone person who appeared before the committee to oppose St. Blanc’s bill. She said the end of TOPS Tech would eliminate assistance for students who want to pursue fields outside the five the Murphy Promise Program has prioritized.

St. Blanc said his intention is not to leave out any student who wants to pursue a career in Louisiana.

“We’re not going to close that door. We’re going to open a bigger one,” he said.

Home-school TOPS access

The committee also approved two bills related to TOPS standards for home-schooled students.

They must currently score at least two points higher on the ACT than their public and private school counterparts to qualify for the TOPS Tech and Opportunity awards. For the TOPS Performance and Honors awards, their score must be one point more.

Rep. Brian Glorioso, R-Slidell, wants all students to face the same criteria to qualify for TOPS, which he proposes in House Bill 68. He said he wasn’t aware of the difference in standards until a home-school parent approached him about it last year.

“I started to research this because it didn’t make sense why we would require home-school students to score higher on the ACT, which everyone knows is a standardized test and is obviously not being graded by their parents,” Glorioso said.

An average of 313 home-schooled students qualify for TOPS awards annually, according to the Louisiana Department of Education. Their awards total about $102,000, with Glorioso stressing the budget impact is minimal.

Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Schriever, who home-schooled her children, has authored what she called a backup option to Glorioso’s bill. House Bill 548 would keep the higher-score standards in place for home-schooled students, but they would also be able to qualify for TOPS with their grade-point average in TOPS core curriculum classes.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education now certifies home-school curricula to ensure they match what’s offered in public schools, although home-schooled students aren’t required to take the courses.

Amedee voted for Glorioso’s bill, saying  she “loves” it, but acknowledged some lawmakers might not be willing to budge on the ACT score adjustment.

The higher ACT standards have been in place for several years, dating back to before BESE started giving its blessing to home-school curricula. The thinking at the time was that home-schooled students should face a higher bar to qualify for TOPS — much like out-of-state students do when applying to Louisiana schools — because they don’t have to take the same core classes to earn a diploma.

Speaking in code

Amedee also gained approval for House Bill 266, which would no longer treat computer coding as a foreign language for the purposes of TOPS qualifying. It would undo a law former state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, created two years ago to make coding an option for students seeking the scholarship.

Hewitt classified coding as a foreign language because she didn’t want to add an additional required course for students to receive TOPS. Amedee, who said she supports French-language immersion programs in her home Terrebonne Parish, said students shouldn’t have to choose between computer coding classes and foreign language.

Education Committee member Rep. Josh Carlson, R-Lafayette, argued that coding is a foreign language, to which Amedee responded that people don’t converse in coding in casual conversation like they do a foreign language.

Enough GOP members voted against Amedee’s bill to force chair Rep. Laurie Schlegel, R-Metairie, to break a 6-6 tie vote. She chose to advance it to the House floor for consideration.

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