TOPS change leaves Riverside out

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 24, 1999

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / July 24, 1999

LAPLACE-When Gov. Foster signed bill HB1725 into law on Monday, over175 private school students in Louisiana lost their eligibility to qualify for the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS.

Twenty-three private schools in Louisiana, including Riverside Academy of Reserve, were instantly denied access to this program with the stroke of Foster’s pen.

“This has truly been a gut-wrenching decision,” said Foster, “but I truly believe it was the right one.”Up until Monday, TOPS was available to all public, private and parochial school students.

The law states that schools eligible for the TOPS program must be approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, (BESE) and receive state funding for books and transportation. However, in orderto receive state funding the school must meet non-discriminatory requirements as put forth by the court in the Brumfield-Dodd decision, which requires private and parochial schools to operate in a non- discriminatory basis in order to receive state and federal funds.

The vast majority of private and religious schools in the state are Brumfield-Dodd compliant At this time, 23 private schools in Louisiana are not, including Riverside Academy. As of now, the Riverside Academyclass of 2000 will be ineligible to receive TOPS money to go to college.

To become Brumfield-Dodd compliant, a school has to fill out a federal form stating that its admission policy is non-discriminatory. RiversideAcademy did not fill out the form because they did not wish to get state or federal funding, according to state officials.

Riverside principal Barry Heltz was out of town this week and unavailable for comment.

TOPS, conceived by local oil man and philanthropist Pat Taylor, guarantees deserving students the opportunity to attend a Louisiana public college or university regardless of their ability to pay.

Qualified students receive full tuition paid by the state at public two- and four-year colleges, universities and vocational-technical schools.

Passed by the Louisiana Legislature in 1989, TOPS has become a huge success in the state. By this year over 24,500 students will be attendingcollege and universities in Louisiana under the TOPS program. The programhas been so successful that 13 other states have adopted TOPS, with 10 others pursuing TOPS legislation.

The majority of the new TOPS law is dedicated to raising the academic standards for students who wish to qualify for TOPS. Foster is in favor ofraising these standards, but he had reservations on the provision requiring that schools must prove they don’t discriminate based on race.

“I thought this was unfair,” Foster said, “and it caused me great concern.”But he signed the bill because of the other provisions that would toughen academic standards in order for students to qualify for TOPS money.

After signing the bill, Foster said he will not give up on the 23 schools that do not have Brumfield-Dodd certification. In a letter written to theparents of these students, Foster said, “I am pledging my support to you to do everything I can to assist your child’s school in becoming certified as non-discriminatory.”Foster’s office has already contacted the federal government and the Louisiana Department of Education to ask their cooperation in expediting the process. He said he has received assurances that the federalgovernment will work with Louisiana on this problem. Foster believes thatonce the process is completed all the students in the affected schools will be able to have students qualify for the TOPS program.

However, if the federal government cannot help, Foster is ready to bring the issue up in the special session of the Louisiana Legislature in March.

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