Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has taken some heat for co-sponsoring a 2011 bill to revamp the HOPE higher education aid program. Critics of the former House minority leader say she cut a deal that hurt poor and minority students.
The Abrams campaign rejected the charge.
"Under Abrams’ leadership, Democrats fought to prevent certain cuts and make sure the bill included funding for remedial classes at technical colleges, a 1 percent low interest loan program, and prevented the use of ACT/SAT testing standards that would have harmed poor students and students of color," spokeswoman Caitlin Highland wrote in an email Jan. 17.
A key point of contention centers on the role of standardized test scores in the aid program. In this fact-check, we looked at whether Abrams prevented the use of ACT/SAT testing standards in setting eligibility for scholarships.
HOPE stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally and dates from 1992. It was one of the country’s earliest merit-based state aid programs. Over the years, it reached hundreds of thousands of students and provided billions of dollars in assistance.
Until 2011, it had two basic streams: HOPE grants defrayed costs for attending technical colleges, and HOPE scholarships covered the full-tuition, plus books and other fees, for people working on two-year associate’s and four-year bachelor’s degrees.
In 2011, costs were outstripping proceeds from the Georgia state lottery that funded the program. The state’s newly elected governor, Republican Nathan Deal, moved to trim the spending.
In February 2011, flanked by lawmakers including Abrams, Deal unveiled a plan for HOPE. Among its many measures, it created two tiers in the scholarship awards part of the HOPE program – one for the best students and one for good but not exceptional ones.
The original full-tuition HOPE scholarship was renamed the Zell Miller scholarship in honor of the former U.S. senator and governor. It significantly racheted up the eligibility requirements.
Aimed at high performers, the Zell Miller scholarship program was limited to students with a 3.7 grade point average and a combined score of at least 1200 for the critical reading and math sections on the SAT or a 26 ACT score.
The original HOPE scholarship remained in name, but the bill made it less generous. Instead of full tuition, it provided support that approached 90 percent of tuition, and it no longer covered books and other costs.
Unlike the Zell Miller award for elite scholars, the HOPE scholarship remained free of a standardized test score requirement. As before, students were eligible if they had at least a 3.0 grade point average.
Did Abrams actually save the HOPE scholarship program from a standardized test requirement?
Abrams’ communications director Priyanka Mantha told us Abrams did.
"The original Republican proposal sought to impose testing requirements on students who wished to receive the scholarship, in order to narrow eligibility," Mantha said. "But under her leadership, the scholarship retained an eligibility tier without testing requirements because such tests would have disproportionately disqualified low-income students and students of color."
There is no hard data on the discussions that took place behind closed doors, but an Atlanta Journal Constitution article from that time said the test score idea was in play. The news report listed eight suggestions. One of them was "require high school graduates to earn a minimum SAT/ACT score to be eligible."
Mantha said the creation of the Zell Miller scholarship with a test score requirement was the result of Abrams’ intervention.
"The two tiers of the HOPE program are the crux of the compromise she achieved," Mantha said. "Students who may have been eliminated from eligibility under the GOP proposal instead retained access to a version of the HOPE scholarship."
Ben George, chief of staff to the Senate Minority Leader in 2011, said his boss and other Democrats were not part of the discussions and were "caught completely off-guard" by the deal with the governor.
As part of the 2011 bill, lawmakers raised the grade average for the HOPE grant for technical colleges from 2.0 to 3.0. According to a report from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning study center, full-time enrollment in the state’s technical college system fell "nearly 25 percent between 2011 and 2012."
In 2013, lawmakers rolled back the hike in the grade average.
Other changes, however, remained in place, including pulling back the amount of HOPE grant and scholarship aid. That made it harder for lower income students to stay enrolled.
After the first two years, a Wall Street Journal analysis found that students from higher income neighborhoods went from being twice as likely to secure a full-tuition scholarship to three times as likely, compared to students from lower income neighborhoods. Georgia State University told the Journal that it had to drop dozens of students for not paying tuition after their scholarship aid dropped (although most of them were able to return after the school made a special plea to donors).
Abrams said she led the fight to prevent the use of standardized test scores as part of the HOPE program.
In 2011, she supported a plan to make minimum test scores part of the eligibility requirements for the full-tuition HOPE scholarship. The bill that emerged renamed the full-tuition scholarship, raised the minimum grade point average and added a minimum test score requirement.
The bill did not add similar requirements to the original scholarship program, but made it less generous.
Abrams’ statement is accurate but it leaves out important details. We rate this claim Half True.