By Kevin Shannahan
One morning a few weeks ago, I was reading an article online from one of our state’s largest newspapers when a full page ad popped up over my screen. The article was one of many on the ongoing disaster that is the underfunded TOPS scholarship program. The ad was for Texas A&M. That ad and its placement next to the story on TOPS told me more about how serious the situation is than any article I read on the site.
Louisiana’s Taylor Opportunity Scholarships were, until recently, a bright spot in the state’s abysmal record of social mobility. Now, with the commendable exception of two colleges, one of which is our Northwestern State University who chose to make their students whole, it stands as yet another broken promise.
One can only hope the cuts will serve one more purpose-as a wake up call. Louisiana has long suffered from an exodus of its young, smart and ambitious young people leaving for opportunity elsewhere. While the state’s ecomony has to diversify and grow to fully fix the problem, TOPS had made significant progress in making our state a better place to launch an adult life and start a family-right here at home. If seeing a full page ad for a Texas university pop up while reading an article on our state’s failure to fully fund TOPS does not dismay you that the situation was allowed to come to this, I don’t know what will. Other states will step up their recruiting of our more promising young people, reversing years of progress.
Failing to fund TOPS is more than another one of the garden variety failures we have sadly become used to over the years. It is breaking a promise to the next generation of Louisianians and their families. The reverberations of this will be felt for years after the upcoming semester is over. This failure has already done lasting damage and the situation will only get worse.
While most of the attention given to TOPS has centered around its recipients, the program had had a positive effect on education across the state. How many high schools now offer foreign languages that did not before TOPS required a student to take them in order to receive the scholarship? How many schools now offer advanced levels of math? How many young people took high school a bit more seriously and along the way found out that they were capable of more than they thought?
TOPS put the most effective kind of pressure on our schools to get better, pressure from families who wanted their children to have this opportunity and needed the schools to step up. In the years after TOPS was enacted, hard questions were asked all over the state. Why does our school not offer a foreign language? Why does it not offer advanced math or physics? TOPS did more than pay students’ tuition at college or trade school, it set off a massive improvement in the quality of high school education in Louisiana. Without a steady drumbeat of pressure from families, all too many of those gains will reverse themselves.