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Letter to the Editor: State should not raid Hope money

Letter to the Editor • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:02 PM

To the Editor:

I am writing to you with concerns I have about the Tennessee Education Lottery scholarship program in light of Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent proposal to siphon money from lottery scholarships to pay for his proposed Tennessee Promise program. After working for more than 20 years to pass legislation in Tennessee to create the lottery and the lottery scholarship program, I continue to watch the program closely and any legislation that affects it.

As the sponsor of the legislation permitting a referendum on the Constitutional ban on lotteries and, subsequently, the spokesperson for the ballot measure, I know what was presented to Tennessee voters in terms of how the funds would be used and that was always to be a HOPE program like that in Georgia. That is what Tennesseans expected when they cast their votes and that is what I intended when I sponsored the original legislation and worked to ensure voter turnout for the ballot measure. The Georgia HOPE program had been highly successful for many years at that time and has continued to be so since.

The referendum passed, and the General Assembly passed enacting legislation for both the lottery and the scholarship program in the spring 2004 legislative session. As is often the case, the legislative process did not produce as good a product as I had hoped. The scholarships were not fully funded as there was concern by some that the lottery would not be successful enough to handle full scholarships. 

Having been immersed in the issue for two decades at that point, I felt confident that the lottery revenues would be there for both full scholarship funding and a reasonable “rainy day” fund. My estimates proved to be spot on. Despite the lottery’s success, Tennessee’s HOPE lottery scholarship amounts have never increased to provide full scholarships. While the lottery’s excess funds have greatly increased, the scholarships have actually decreased in value as tuition rates have risen steeply. I have been warning for many years that without an increase the scholarships will very soon become more a stipend than a scholarship.

At their outset, HOPE Scholarships covered roughly three-fourths of a student’s tuition at Tennessee’s state colleges and universities. Today, it covers less than half. The governor’s proposal will reduce the amount of the HOPE lottery scholarship for freshmen and sophomores from $4,000 to $3,000. 

To decrease freshman and sophomore HOPE scholarship amounts for students who have worked hard to get those scholarships seems to discourage academic success for high school students.

Tennessee’s HOPE scholarships should not be raided to pay for Gov. Haslam’s Tennessee Promise plan. If any changes should be made or the surplus used for any purpose, it should be to increase the amount of the scholarships presently available from the Tennessee Education Lottery. Increase the ASPIRE Award from $750 per semester to $1,500 per semester to help students from families that earn less than $36,000 a year or raise the income threshold from $36,000 to $50,000 or $60,000 to provide more assistance to middle-income students. Either of these two options would do well to move toward the original promise of the Tennessee lottery by providing aid to students who have achieved academically to stay in state for college. 

If the governor’s plan is enacted, there will be no money for growth and the aid from the lottery will become a stipend rather than a scholarship.

If you need further information or would like to speak to me about this, I would be happy to speak with you. 

Steve Cohen

U.S. congressman

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