Louisiana Senate committee clears bill that could end income reporting for merit-based scholarship

(The Center Square) — A bill to eliminate reporting of family income for Louisiana’s merit-based scholarship program has cleared the Senate Committee on Education.

Committee members voted…

(The Center Square) — A bill to eliminate reporting of family income for Louisiana’s merit-based scholarship program has cleared the Senate Committee on Education.

Committee members voted unanimously to approve Senate Bill 81, sponsored by Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, to eliminate family income in reporting requirements for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarship.

TOPS is a merit-based scholarship that covers tuition for residents at Louisiana colleges and universities. James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, told the Senate committee on Thursday that SB 81 “corrects an inconsistency in the law” regarding income reporting requirements.

A 2016 law requires program administrators to reduce TOPS awards proportionally for all students in the case of a shortfall in funding, which eliminated the need for income reporting requirements, Caillier said, but state financial aid officials are still required to report the information, regardless.

“The students’ families don’t have to submit the financial information, so what’s being reported is inconsistent and incomplete, because it doesn’t include all the students,” he said. “So the financial portion serves no purpose.”

Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, questioned the downside of collecting family income on students.

“What’s been the negative of getting that report to determine whether or not we’re serving with this program those who live under the medium income?” she questioned. “I always think that’s great to know in a program whether we’re reaching those who live below a medium family income.”

Caillier countered that information on those students is typically available through Pell Grant applications.

Sen. Robert Mills, R-Minden, said he strenuously objected to providing financial information for the TOPS scholarship forms.

“They were not used for anything,” he said, “and the security of that was invasive and abusive and I hated it.”

Richard Davis, a state policy fellow with the Louisiana Budget Project, testified in opposition to the bill.

“We believe this data is critical to our collective understanding of who benefits from and who is excluded from this important program,” he said, citing the annual appropriation for the program of nearly $270 million.

“Any disparities and equity gaps that exist can only be identified and addressed at the state level if lawmakers and the general public have access to data that isolates indicators such as race, gender and income,” Davis said.

Louisiana Progress Executive Director Peter Robins-Brown also argued in favor of keeping the financial reporting requirement, citing the size of the growing program and a disproportionate number of scholarships going to families that can afford tuition.

“It has disproportionately gone to people who maybe on a needs level wouldn’t necessarily need it,” he said. “I think that’s important as we … deal with budget issues going forward.”

“I know it’s not a needs-based program,” Robins-Brown said, but it’s important for “understanding why we’re sending a large amount of money in some cases to folks who are already in a comfortable at times financial position.”

Mills countered that the intent of the program is to provide financial assistance to folks who earned it, regardless of income or race.

“I remember Pat Taylor well. This was sold as a color-blind, income-blind, absolutely one-for-all if you earn it, you get it,” he said. “It was a big public campaign to get TOPS approved, and the only reason it got approved is because it was color-blind, income-blind, it’s strictly an earned benefit. And it was a great idea.

“And just the fact that we’re talking about income-based, need-based type of deviation from it goes against the whole grain of it,” he said. “I think Mr. Taylor would object, and I do.”

White echoed Mills’ perspective.

SB 81 now heads to the full Senate for consideration.