CHARLESTON -- The PROMISE scholarship would go from a paid college education for students with at least a "B" average to a $500 per semester grant for "C" students under a bill introduced Monday by the House Education Committee.
The bill, HB3238, would also mandate that half of the scholarships go to students pursuing four-year bachelor's degrees, and half go to students pursuing other programs, such as a two-year associate degree or a certificate from a vocational school.
"The West Virginia of the future will need folks of all education levels," Education Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta said, adding that the changes open the program to more students.
But Education and the Arts Secretary Kay Goodwin said the bill "substantially changes the intent of the PROMISE Scholarship Program.
"It lowers the expectations considerably," she said. "When you have asked young people to work hard and play by the rules ... this is a bill that could break the promise, not keep the promise."
Lawmakers created the PROMISE Scholarship Program in 1999, but never funded it. Gov. Bob Wise has made funding it a priority and has proposed using revenue from a tax on video poker machines to do so.
Under the existing legislation, students with a 3.0 grade point average, or an ACT composite score of 21, would be eligible to use the scholarship to attend any accredited public or private college or university in West Virginia.
The scholarship would cover tuition and fees for about 4,000 students starting with the class of 2002 at a cost of $9.2 million. When fully implemented four years later, the program would cover about 10,000 students at a cost of $25 million a year.
The Education Committee's proposal would open up the program to students with a 2.0 GPA and cap the money available for scholarships at $20 million, or $1,000 each for 20,000 students.
"When you look at the big picture, a lot more kids will be able to qualify," said Mezzatesta, D-Hampshire.
The committee rejected an attempt to keep the 3.0 eligibility standard and full tuition and fees.
"This was really the intent that many of us had in mind when we traveled to Charleston," said Delegate Ron Fragale, D-Harrison. "I think anything less would sort of take away from the spirit of the PROMISE scholarship."
Other delegates agreed.
"I think we've dealt with several ways to lower the bar," said Delegate Mary Poling, D-Barbour. "I know from being a high school teacher that having a 2.0 does not mean that a student will excel in a college program."
The bill also mandates that the same amount of money allocated to PROMISE also be provided to support higher education changes approved by lawmakers last year.
Goodwin said the bill "does not appear to be a piece of legislation that has been well thought out."
"Chairman Mezzatesta's opposition to PROMISE is well known and this makes me very sad because what's really important here is our young people," she said.
"I don't believe (Wise) would like to see this bill become law."
The bill goes to the full House for its consideration.
On the Net: West Virginia Legislature: http://www.legis.state.wv.us