Inspired by a Louisiana millionaire's promise to send New Orlean's neediest students to college, Delegate John Gary, R-Millersville, wants to overhaul the state's largest scholarship program.
Oilman Pat Taylor pledged two years ago to send 180 middle school students, who had failed two grades and been identified as potential high school dropouts, to college if they graduate with a B average.
Taylor has since convinced Louisiana and five other states to establish statewide scholarship programs that mirror his early pledge. Gary wants Maryland to join those ranks.
"Too often teen-agers coming from poor families say, 'A high school education isn't enough to do anything for me, why should I go on?' " Gary told the House Republican Caucus yesterday. "This would be a reason."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer proposed far-reaching scholarship reforms of his own last week with the same goals in mind.
The Free State Program would attempt to identify eligible students with college potential as early as the sixth, seventh and eighth grades and promise financial assistance after they complete a college preparation curriculum in high school. The students would have to sign a "drug-free" pledge and seek admission to any public or private college in Maryland.
Jeffrey R. Welsh, spokesman for the state Higher Education Commission, said the Free State Program would reach about 5,000 students from families with incomes of less than $10,000, the federally established poverty level.
Those needy students could qualify for up to $4,000 annually to spend on tuition, fees, room and board, Welsh said. The Higher Education Commission estimates those costs at $7,000, but assumes a studentwill pay $700 and will receive a need-based federal scholarship known as a Pell Grant, the spokesman said.
About 8,800 low- and middle-income families would also be eligible for up to $3,000, Welsh said.
"The thing about the Taylor program and the Free State Program isthat they target precisely the people we need to get into college --those from poorer families, those likely to drop out," said Welsh. "If we don't keep them in high school and get them into college, the state will have a terrible time competing. That's a sound economic argument."
Gary plans to introduce a bill more closely modeled afterTaylor's proposal because, he said, the cost of the sweeping Free State Program is too steep.
The governor's reforms would cost an estimated $25 million by July 1, 1995, Welsh said. By contrast, the state spent $11.6 million last year on its general scholarship program.
Even though the cost would not be felt until the program has been completely phased in over four years, legislators who face a $400 million budget deficit this year and further shortages next year are skittish about new programs, Gary said.
Gary invited a Taylor representative to speak yesterday to the Republican Caucus and his House Appropriations subcommittee on education.
"Providing an education is a state responsibility," said Taylor spokesman Jack Smith. "The states started providing a high school education in the mid-1800s. Now, we're sending men to the moon, and we haven't changed that."
Gary said he did not have a cost estimate for his proposal, which would pay the tuition of B-average students from families who earned $30,000 orless. Students would pay their own room and board, he said.
Gary said he would seek corporate sponsors to help defray the program's costs. He also will consider eliminating the $6.4 million legislative scholarship program that allows senators and delegates to give financial aid to their constituents.
"I'm impressed with the Taylor program," said Delegate Aris Allen, R-Annapolis. "If ever there was a cure-all for our problems, it's education."