Education commissioner: 'Nothing has gotten better'

BATON ROUGE — Joseph Rallo, the state’s departing higher education leader, said Thursday that parents and students should “feel outraged” that lawmakers failed for a second time to raise enough revenue to fully fund TOPS and avoid significant cuts at universities.

The Legislature passed a budget Monday that would slash funding for TOPS scholarships by 30 percent, or $85 million, and cut operating funds for universities, which had already declined substantially over the last decade, by $96 million.

“I am leaving after three and half years, and nothing has gotten better. Nothing,” said Rallo, who was a top official at universities in Texas and Illinois before becoming Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education in 2015.

“I think it is a very unfortunate position for the state, for the parents, for the students, and at the end of the day, for the economy,” he said in a series of interviews.

Rallo described the cut in TOPS as a broken promise to students who had worked hard throughout their high school careers.

“We are now in the first week of June,” he said. “Students have made choices, and they have a TOPS promise that they have worked for four years on. They have met their side of the bargain, and now the state hasn't.”

He said he was hopeful that TOPS funding would be restored in a third special session that Gov. John Bel Edwards plans to call later this month. Edwards said he will push House Republicans to agree to revenue increases to avert most of the cuts that were made across the state budget.

Rallo indicated that he was more concerned about the potential $96 million cuts in the higher education budget. He said funds that go directly to the universities have already been cut substantially under the Jindal administration.

He said many legislators have a misconception that if they fund TOPS, they have funded higher education. In reality, without providing more money for universities to cover their expenses, some will be forced to drop some of the programs and classes needed to make Louisiana more competitive economically.

“If a young person walks out with a degree and they don't have the types of classes and the quality they need, then it's just a piece of paper,” Rallo said. “It doesn't allow them to compete with other students, and that's what this is about.”

He said he also has been frustrated that