Proposal moves forward to stop reporting earnings of TOPS recipients

The Senate Education Committee on Thursday unanimously introduced a bill that would end household income reporting for TOPS recipients.

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

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

White’s original bill would also have removed the race and gender reporting requirement, but it was amended to only remove 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 at the end of the 2020 school year, about 40% 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 whose parents earned $1 million or more had received TOPS funding in the previous decade.

Proponents of more help for low-income students often raise questions about the fairness of a scholarship program that serves so many affluent families. But lawmakers have never shown much interest in cutting a benefit for so many of their middle- and upper-middle-income voters.

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

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

“I would say we should have this information to not demonize these TOPS recipients who have rightfully won their merit scholarships like me, but rather keep this data in mind to really force us to have conversations about how we can work to create more opportunities for low-income students who benefit from the TOPS scholarship program,” said Richard Davis, policy researcher with the Louisiana Budget Project.

Davis pointed out that the legislature unanimously approved a measure requiring the reporting of such 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 primarily benefits students from privileged backgrounds.

“It went disproportionately to people who, on a need level, might not necessarily need it,” Robins-Brown said. “I think it’s important to just understand it in context and when we’re looking at a situation where we’re handing out a lot of money, in some cases, to people who are already in a comfortable financial situation. “

Sen. Katrina Jackson, a Democrat from Monroe, expressed concern about the limited information available on recipients of state programs.

“What is the negative that we receive and report revenue? I always like to know if we have programs that really reach those below the median income,” Jackson said.

Jackson ultimately did not object to moving the bill forward.

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

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

Piper Hutchinson is a reporter for the LSU Manship School News Service.

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