TALLAHASSEE -- Sen. Marco Rubio is asking the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to end its probe into Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship program.
The office is investigating claims that the eligibility criteria have the effect of discriminating against black and Hispanic students.
But Rubio, in a letter to Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon Friday, said the federal government had “no legitimate legal basis for investigating such a program.”
“Further, forcing bureaucratic changes in the parameters of eligibility for this scholarship would not only degrade the fundamental purpose of this scholarship, but also render the program financially unstable,” Rubio said.
The education department was reviewing the letter, Press Secretary Dorie Nolt said.
Most Bright Futures scholarships are valued at about $2,300 a year for a full-time student. Top students can receive about $3,100.
The program has long shouldered criticism for awarding an outsized share of scholarships to white and affluent students. The allegations prompted the federal investigation more than a decade ago.
The probe appeared to be dormant — until state lawmakers raised the eligibility criteria for winning a scholarship during the 2011 session.
The University of South Florida responded with an analysis showing that the new Bright Futures standards would benefit half as many students. They predicted the number of Hispanic scholarship recipients would drop by 60 percent, while the number of black scholarship recipients would drop by more than 75 percent.
Democratic lawmakers floated proposals to maintain the old standards in 2013 and 2014. Both efforts failed.
In his letter, Rubio implored the federal education officials not to change the eligibility criteria.
He noted that the Bright Futures program was designed “to assist Florida’s most promising students based solely on merit.”
“To the credit of the students of Florida, the standards and achievement levels have risen across the entire state, and the number of students eligible for the program has also increased,” Rubio said. “While I am proud of the strides Florida’s students have made, the logical conclusion is that the standards of the program must rise with the achievements of our students.”
Rubio also said changing the eligibility requirements would make the program financially insolvent.
Rubio is not the only Miami-Dade lawmaker who feels that way.
State Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, also opposes changing the standards to serve more minority students.
“Bright Futures, from its inception, has always been race, gender and creed blind,” he said in March.