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Incremental TOPS bill requires substantial followup

At least it moves the ball down the field a little bit, the first bill in some time that has a political chance to improve the problem of Louisiana’s open-ended commitment to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students having been prefiled for the Legislature’s upcoming 2015 regular session – but moves it only a tiny fraction.

SB 48 by state Sen. Jack Donahue would give the Legislature a cost-control mechanism over the TOPS award. Presently, the amount given per student is linked to tuition paid to Louisiana public colleges and universities, up to the highest amount charged by each kind (or a weighted average of each kind of these for a student wishing to attend a Louisiana nonpublic school). The bill locks in the amount at the academic year 2017 level – beginning almost 18 months from now – and gives the Legislature the discretion whether to raise the award for any future tuition increases past that level. This means tuition could go higher without TOPS fully paying for it.

As far as reforms of the program go, this is about as close as it can be to being no reform at all. It treats the symptom – escalating costs pegged at $267 million for this fiscal year for which the only control the Legislature has is its bizarre two-thirds majorities requirement to raise tuition more than 10 percent (for schools that meet certain qualifications; otherwise, no autonomous raise is permitted) – instead of the disease: a program so lax in its requirements (requiring for an award to pay for attending a baccalaureate-and-above institution only the national average score on the American College Test and a mediocre high school grade point average, and less demanding strictures to attend a community college or technical school) that it pays for too many marginal students to attend post-secondary education institutions, encouraging waste and making schools work less efficiently. Any serious reform must start with raising standards and graduating award amounts depending upon performance that reward excellence, which in turn creates incentive for more efficient learning and higher achievement in doing so.

Unfortunately, consistent with the state’s populist political culture, college education seems considered as an entitlement rather than as a reward for quality performance, or at least a majority of lawmakers and even Gov. Bobby Jindal have perceived this as such, for repeated legislative attempts along these lines of genuine reform have met with defeat, often spurred by special interests featuring most prominently the organization that had run the program before the state read it into law, the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation. However, this next-to-nothing proposal looks to have secured the blessing of this organization, meaning this could be the first bill reducing the value of TOPS ever to make it into law.

This means that, many years down the road, if left at this small savings above the current defined levels would occur. Anything is good, but this has significance only if its leads to more fundamental. Precise, and effective reforms as noted above. Worse, if only this gets enacted after which policy-makers and interests declare victory over TOPS incentives encouraging the disease of inefficient use of taxpayer dollars, it will subvert the chances of achieving any additional meaningful changes that go beyond the symptoms. Hopefully, this does not represent a change in strategy from that pursued by Donahue and state Sen. Conrad Appel (who acts as coauthor on this attempt) last year, where the latter offered a bill to index TOPS to the rate of inflation and the former offered several bills addressing much more extensive reforms along the lines of above.

By all means, pass this incremental bill – even improve it by speeding up the locking in of the payment level to AY 2016 – that changes positively only at the very margins. But do not let it become an excuse to decline in engaging in further reform with real significance, as by itself this does next to nothing to resolve wasteful allocation of funding paying for higher education. It alone would leave us still a long way from scoring on this issue.

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