Policy Brief

Rivals in Tennessee Scrutinize Scholarship Program

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Mike McWherter, who’s running for governor in Tennessee, said recently that the state might need to scale back award amounts through its lottery-funded scholarship program to ensure that it can serve the greatest number of students possible.

Lottery-funded college programs have proved enormously popular in a number of states, most notably Georgia, which created an early blueprint for those models with the HOPE Scholarship. So Mr. McWherter’s position might not seem like the wisest one to take, politically speaking. But the Democrat, like a number of other Tennessee officials, said he’s worried about the fund’s long-term financial stability, which has emerged as a concern with similar lottery programs around the country. ("Economy Forces States to Curtail Programs for Merit Scholarships," Aug. 11, 2010.)

“If funding is going to be an issue, then yes, I think you would have to scale that back to ensure that we maintain solvency in the fund,” he told the Associated Press.

In 2009-10, Tennessee’s Education Lottery Scholarship Program awarded about $291 million in college aid and served 100,000 students, said Tim Phelps, the associate executive director for grant and scholarship programs at the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation. State officials have tapped the program’s $319 million reserve in recent years to cover scholarship costs, he said.

Mr. McWherter’s opponent, Republican Bill Haslam, said he was not eager to change the program, but warned that Tennessee officials have “started to siphon money” from it to pay for other programs. The most important thing, he told AP, is that the promises made to program enrollees are kept.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Georgia recently accused Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes of having opposed the HOPE Scholarship, an issue that emerged during the 1990 Democratic gubernatorial primary, a contest he lost. PolitiFact Georgia, a group that weighs campaign claims, checked out the charge, and concluded that Mr. Barnes did, in fact, oppose a lottery at that time but not, specifically, the scholarship program it eventually spawned.

PolitiFact’s final judgment about the Barnes-against-HOPE claim? “Barely True.”

Vol. 30, Issue 07, Page 21

Published in Print: October 13, 2010, as Candidates Eyeball Tenn. Scholarships
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