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Proposal in state Senate committee advances to stop reporting income of TOPS recipients

Peter Robins-Brown and Richard Davis, center, testified Thursday in opposition to a bill to stop reporting the family income of TOPS recipients.
(Piper Hutchinson/LSU Manship School News Service)
Peter Robins-Brown and Richard Davis, center, testified Thursday in opposition to a bill to stop reporting the family income of TOPS recipients.

The Senate Committee on Education unanimously advanced a bill Thursday that would stop the reporting of household income for TOPS recipients.

Senate Bill 81, sponsored by Sen. Bodi White, a Central Republican, would eliminate the requirement for TOPS recipients to report their family’s income.

Students who benefit from the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, a merit-based scholarship that covers tuition costs for in-state students, are required to provide significant demographic information.

White’s original bill also would have nixed the requirement for reporting on race and gender, but it was amended to only do away with income reporting.

About 58,000 students took advantage of the scholarship in the 2020-2021 academic year. Of the 15,000 high school graduates who were awarded tops at the end of the 2020 school year, about 40% of them came from households with annual incomes of at least $100,000.

The median household income in Louisiana is $49,000.

Last year, the state Board of Regents, which oversees higher education, reported that more than 11,000 students with parents making $1 million or more had received TOPS funding over the previous decade.

Advocates for more aid for low-income students often raise questions about the fairness of a scholarship program that serves so many better-off families. But lawmakers have never shown much interest in trimming back a benefit for so many of their middle- and upper-middle-income constituents.

In 2020, the state spent over $320 million on TOPS. Louisiana also offers GO Grants, a needs-based program that offers a much lower rate of assistance and is funded at roughly $40 million.

Opponents of White’s bill argued Thursday that collecting the income data helps facilitate conversations about how to address low-income students in Louisiana.

“I would argue that we should have this information not to demonize these TOPS recipients who rightfully earned their scholarships on merit like myself, but rather keeping this data at the front of our minds to really force us to have conversations about how we can work to create more opportunities for those low-income students who are being served by the TOPS scholarship program,” Richard Davis, a Louisiana Budget Project policy fellow, said.

Davis pointed out that the Legislature had unanimously approved a measure to require reporting of this data to give lawmakers as much data as possible with which to craft policy.

Peter Robins-Brown, executive director of Louisiana Progress, a progressive group, argued that TOPS funding mostly benefits students from privileged backgrounds.

“It has just disproportionately gone to people who maybe on a needs level wouldn’t necessarily need it,” Robins-Brown said. “I think it’s important to just understand it in the context and when we look at a situation where we’re, you know, handing out a lot of money, in some cases, to folks who are already in a comfortable-at-times financial position.”

Sen. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat, raised concerns about limiting the information available about the beneficiaries of state programs.

“What’s the negative that we’ve been receiving and reporting the income? I always like to know whether we have programs that truly reach those who are below the median income,” Jackson said.

Jackson ultimately did not object to advancing the bill.

White said his bill is in line with the spirit of the TOPS program.

“This was sold as a color-blind, income-blind, absolutely one for all, if you earn it, you get it,” White said.

Piper Hutchinson is a reporter with the LSU Manship School News Service. This story was provided by the LSU Manship School News Service and published by the Louisiana Illuminator.

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