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By Willoughby Mariano November 9, 2011

Rainbow/PUSH: Wealthy students get HOPE scholarship

When Occupy Atlanta took over Woodruff Park and shouted for more economic equality, veteran civil rights activist Joe Beasley did what activists are wont to do. He joined them.

The Southern regional director for the civil rights group Rainbow/PUSH Coalition spoke out for social justice. He defended the group when its occupation tried Mayor Kasim Reed’s patience. Reed kicked them out of the park, and Beasley faced arrest alongside them

But when Beasley called for Reed’s ouster over his treatment of protesters, Rainbow/PUSH headquarters told him to hush. It’s no time to take on Reed, they said in an Oct. 28 statement.

"In a state where both U.S. senators proudly voted against health care reform ... where hard-earned lottery dollars are doled out to the scion[s] of wealthy families, targeting Mayor Reed seems wasteful and naive," Rainbow/PUSH’s statement said.

Wait a second, we thought. What’s this about the scions of wealthy families getting lottery dollars? This makes Georgia sound like a bumbling Robin Hood, taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

We contacted Rainbow/PUSH for additional information, but it did not respond to our request.  

It was clear that the group was referring to the HOPE scholarship program, which uses lottery dollars to fund college and technical-school tuition for any student who meets certain academic standards, regardless of income. Lottery funds also support statewide pre-kindergarten programs.

At first, the state only gave HOPE scholarships to families that made less than $66,000. Legislators later nixed the limit because they wanted to use it to keep the best-performing students in state, regardless of income.   

Until recently, HOPE covered 100 percent of tuition at Georgia colleges for high school students graduating with a 3.0 grade-point average.

The state Legislature made it tougher to get the scholarship in March after the program ran into budget problems. Now, students with a 3.7 average and a 1200 SAT will get full tuition coverage. Those with lower grades will get less money.

Some critics have called the HOPE scholarship welfare for the affluent, claiming that the bulk of the dollars go to students who don’t need financial help. We talked to experts who have studied HOPE and similar broad-based statewide scholarship programs to check the accuracy of Rainbow/PUSH’s claim.

We found that while it’s likely that the children of some wealthy families received HOPE scholarship money, reality is not as Rainbow/PUSH described it.  

Researchers have found it’s reasonable to conclude that middle- and upper-income families reap a greater share of the benefits of HOPE. An investigation and resulting series of articles by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published in 2003 came to a similar conclusion.  

Other statewide merit scholarship programs have the same problem.   

"I’d say it’s pretty much settled," said Ross Rubenstein, a Syracuse University professor who has studied HOPE. "Most of the benefits tend to flow to middle- and upper-income families."

One reason is research consistently shows that children in higher-earning families tend to achieve more academic success. In addition, scholars have known for years that people with less education and lower income tend to spend a greater share of their money on lottery games.  

A 2002 study co-authored by Rubenstein estimated that households that made $25,000 or less or between $35,000 and $50,000 each year gave more to lottery funds than they received in college scholarships and other benefits. Research published by the National Tax Journal in 2001 suggests that the program widened the gap in college attendance between students from low- and high-income families.

Two University of Georgia professors found that HOPE scholarships are more likely to be awarded to counties with higher per-capita incomes, although lower-income families tend to spend a greater share of their money on the lottery.

One peculiar result is that HOPE scholarships may have boosted car sales, according to a study co-authored by University of Georgia professor David Mustard. His research found that county car registrations increased when their number of HOPE recipients attending state-system and private schools rose, so long as the county’s per-capita income was above the 75th percentile.

"Do the children of really wealthy families get HOPE? Probably yes," Mustard said. "And really poor families do, too. But wealthy families do get it at higher rates."  

But what researchers know about HOPE and income has its limits. The scholarship application does not ask students to disclose how much their families make, Mustard said, so scholars are unable to do more precise calculations.

It’s likely that children from upper-income families do receive HOPE scholarship money, as Rainbow/PUSH’s news release stated. But the group’s rhetoric is so strident that it confuses the issue.

Truth does underlie its statement. Middle- and upper- income families tend to receive more of the scholarship’s benefits, even though lower-income families tend to spend a greater share of their money buying the lottery tickets that fund HOPE.  

Still, it’s not fair to suggest that the program takes from the poor and gives to the rich, or the "scion[s] of wealthy families," as Rainbow/PUSH said. Middle-income families are among the program’s greatest beneficiaries. Lower-income and poor families do receive a notable share of the scholarships.

Rainbow/PUSH is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. That’s our definition for Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources, Political Insider blog, "Rainbow/PUSH to Occupy Atlanta: Stop bickering with mayor over park," Oct. 28, 2011

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Rainbow PUSH leader calls for ouster of Mayor Reed," October 25, 2011

National Tax Journal, "Hope for Whom? Financial Aid for the Middle Class and Its Impact on College Attendance," September 2000

The Civil Rights Project and University of California at Los Angeles, "Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship and Minority and Low-Income Students: Program Effects and Proposed Reforms," 2004

Education and Finance Policy, Merit-Based College Scholarships and Car Sales, Spring 2007

National Tax Journal, "Who Pays and Who Benefits: Examining the Distributional Consequences of the Georgia Lottery for Education," 2002

Education Finance and Policy, Merit-Based College Scholarships and Car Sales, 2007

Telephone interview, Ross Rubenstein, professor of public administration, Syracuse University, Nov. 2, 2011

Telephone interview, David Mustard, associate professor, department of economics, Terry College of Business, University of Georgia, Nov. 2, 2011

Email interview, Noel Campbell, associate professor of economics, University of Central Arkansas, Nov. 2, 2011

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