The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Bright Futures darken


OUR OPINION: State-funded scholarships should be based on more than standardized tests

Florida’s Bright Futures program has managed to do a lot of good, but often in the wrong places. The scholarship program, funded by the lottery and promised to just about any high-school graduate with decent grades, has become a costly, unsustainable entitlement program.

Originally conceived as a way to keep students from leaving Florida for college out of state, Bright Futures also has a dark side. Over the years, it allowed lawmakers to give with one hand, saying, “See? We kept our promise to use lottery funds for education!” while taking with the other, cutting millions from both the public school and university systems.

The program has been tweaked throughout its existence, but few modifications helped stem rising costs. This year, lawmakers are set to do it again, but they stand to hurt, not help, too many deserving students. If legislative proposals go through, students will need to post higher scores on the SAT and ACT exams in order to qualify for the lottery-funded scholarships. The goal is to lower costs by awarding fewer scholarships.

Universities correctly fear that poor and minority students would be affected disproportionately. School officials in Miami-Dade County have expressed similar concerns and last week approved a proposal by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho to try to mitigate the impact of the criteria changes, which kick in this July.

A recent analysis by a University of South Florida administrator shows that black and Hispanic students would be disproportionately hurt by the changes, with Miami-Dade taking the biggest hit. Scholarship recipients would drop by almost 64 percent!

Snagging a Bright Futures scholarship will still depend too heavily on how students fare on a couple of standardized tests. Minimum ACT scores would go from 21 to 22, and minimum SAT scores would jump from 980 now to 1020. The minimum scores would jump again in 2014.

However, the GPA needed to obtain a scholarship would remain at 3.0. In other words, scholarship criteria are weighted toward those who test well, even if the student is mediocre academically. But they ignore how much students have progressed and achieved throughout the year.

Not all students who flame out on standardized tests are lousy students or academically incapable. And the new criteria will continue to reward middle-class, nonminority students, many of whose families can afford to keep their kids in college even if they lose their Bright Futures scholarship.

Back in 2009, a survey found that the median annual income of Bright Futures students’ families was $100,000, and that about one-fourth of University of Florida families earned more than $150,000 a year. At the time, Charlie Reed, former state university chancellor, said that Bright Futures was “one of the dumbest public policies I know, to give rich people financial aid to go to the state schools and to ignore the most needy students.”

Ouch! But Mr. Reed was spot on: Bright Futures fails to take into account the level of students’ need, which, along with the yearlong achievement, should be part of the equation that determines who gets a scholarship from the state. (Ironically, low-income families also play the state’s lottery games in huge numbers, thereby subsidizing scholarships for more affluent students doled out at the expense of their own striving kids.)

It’s not too late for lawmakers to reconsider this misguided effort to save money. It shouldn’t come on the backs of deserving low-income and minority students.

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