The Democratic Campaign for Georgia Governor Is Being Fought Over Free College

Stacey Abrams’s collaboration with HOPE cuts is being made a key issue by challenger Stacey Evans.

Rep. Stacey Evans speaks in opposition to HB 37 during a legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Atlanta. House Minority leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, encourages members of her party to support House Bill 338. Photos: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

Two Georgia Democrats are running for the party’s nomination to seek the governor’s mansion in 2018: House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and a member of her caucus, House Democrat Stacey Evans.

The two legislators agree on many issues, but Evans, the newest entrant in the race, appears poised to draw her contrast around an issue that has galvanized progressives nationally, and one that led to a bitter feud among Democrats in Georgia just a few years ago: free college.

Underneath it is a debate that is as much about tactics as it is about ideology, a question of whether Republican assaults should be resisted in full or met with compromise in order to mitigate damage.

The issue is HOPE, which in Georgia stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally, the name of the grant and scholarship established by former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller in 1993. Miller’s program for students was simple: The newly established state lottery would pay for your public college tuition if you had a “B” average in high school and maintained it in college.

The program was initially offered only to students with a family income below $66,000, but within a couple of years, that income cap was abolished. Through 2006, 900,000 Georgia students had received tuition assistance from HOPE.

In 2011, the year after the tea party wave, Georgia faced a shortfall in lottery revenue. Rather than look at ways to raise revenue to pay for HOPE, Georgia’s Republican governor Nathan Deal and his allies in the legislature instead decided they would make it much more difficult to get.

One of the new requirements they enacted was that students would have to hit a 3.7 GPA in high school in order to be eligible for tuition-free scholarships; another was a 1200 score on the SAT. Additionally, they’d have to maintain a 3.3 GPA while in college to keep the full ride, which would be renamed the Zell Miller Scholarship. Those below that threshold would now only receive partial subsidies under HOPE — increasing their tuition costs and thus student debt.

Two Democratic Responses

While many Democrats opposed the governor’s proposal — it targeted the crown jewel program that the party had established in the state, after all — Abrams chose to work with Deal, arguing that it was the only viable path to saving HOPE.

“We are happy to have found a bipartisan solution to save the nation’s most valuable higher education scholarship program,” Abrams said in a news release after meeting with Deal. “We will join with our Republican colleagues by supporting an initiative offered by Gov. Nathan Deal.”

Evans, the daughter of millworkers who used the HOPE Scholarship to be the first in her family to graduate from college, led the opposition to the cuts. She and other Democrats argued that HOPE should be protected for those who need it most — people from working-class and middle-class backgrounds. She proposed a restoration of the income cap at $140,000. This would have ensured that the state would continue to subsidize tuition for students below that threshold while cutting back on subsidies for students from richer families.

Evans, who grew up in rural North Georgia, reminded her colleagues during floor debate that poor Georgians are much less likely to achieve the high GPA and SAT score necessary to meet the stringent new requirements for a tuition-free scholarship.

“I could not make up for the fact that I didn’t have 18 years at a dinner table with educated parents sharing vocabulary, talking about reading, giving me the tools I would need to score high on an SAT,” she said, noting that while she graduated high school with a GPA of 3.8, she did not get a 1200 SAT score.

Evans lost. Abrams won. When Deal signed into law the cuts to HOPE, Abrams stood at his side, offering him Democratic validation for removing the promise of tuition-free education for thousands of students.

Governor Nathan Deal, seated, signs the HOPE Scholarship bill into law, flanked by Speaker of the House David Ralston(R-Blue Ridge), left, and Lt. Governor Casey Cagle (R-Gainesville), Tuesday, March 15, 2011, at the capitol in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Gov. Nathan Deal, seated, signs the HOPE Scholarship bill into law at the capitol in Atlanta, on March 15, 2011.

Photo: John Amis/AP

When the cuts were signed into law, the number of students receiving HOPE fell considerably almost immediately. As PolitiFact notes, the “number of HOPE recipients dropped from about 250,000 in 2010-2011 to about 200,000 in 2013-2014, and scholarship and grant awards in that period were down about $215 million, from $747.6 million to $532.9 million.”

Technical students were hit particularly hard. Between the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, 30 percent fewer HOPE grants were given.

(The legislature partially reversed cuts to technical students in 2014, an election year, thanks to an effort Evans led.)

A December 2016 report from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts looked at the impact the HOPE cuts had on the state’s students. It found that the changes to the program “reduced the average award amount for over 80% of HOPE recipients.”

It also charted the decline in the average HOPE award following 2011’s overhaul. The full-tuition Zell Miller award, as you’ll recall, was gifted to those who achieved the higher benchmark of a 3.7 GPA and a 1200 SAT score:

A HOPE-Focused Campaign?

Abrams’s campaign has little to say about what happened to HOPE. On her campaign website, her biography only briefly seems to allude to her role in the HOPE cuts: “She has brokered compromises that led to progress on transportation, infrastructure, and education.”

In a 2016 interview, however, she continued to defend her endorsement of Deal’s cuts. “I was very proud to work closely with the Republicans and with Gov. Deal to figure out ways to preserve the HOPE Scholarship,” she told the interviewer. In the same interview, she explored the idea of expanding need-based aid.

Evans, on the other hand, is making it a cornerstone of her bid for governor. She is running on making technical colleges tuition-free and touting her opposition to Deal’s overhaul of HOPE.

When she announced her gubernatorial bid on Thursday, the bulk of her message was about HOPE. “Evans has served in the Georgia House of Representatives from Cobb County since 2011 and is known across the state for voraciously fighting against drastic cuts to the HOPE Scholarship. Her work restored affordable and tuition free technical education, making college possible for tens of thousands of Georgians,” her campaign’s statement offers.

“It gutted the program that was responsible for everything that’s good in my life,” Evans told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the day she announced her bid, speaking of the HOPE cuts of 2011. “The Stacey Evans born today doesn’t have the same opportunity that the Stacey born in 1978 had.”

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