In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Cuts to Bright Futures show talk about investing in Florida’s future is all rhetoric

If only they believed their own words.

If only, when they talk about the importance of higher education, “our investment in Florida’s future,” it wasn’t just so much political rhetoric.

If only their grand election-year promises to provide the state’s economy with a highly educated workforce weren’t contradicted by the gutting of a merit scholarship program that has helped some 650,000 Florida kids attend college since 1997.

The sincerity of the governor and the 2014 Legislature’s supposed commitment to affordable higher education has been undermined by a line item in the latest budget — $266 million for Bright Futures scholarships, down from $309 million last year. Which reduces the number of incoming freshmen receiving tuition stipends this fall by 20,000.

Not that this latest betrayal was all that shocking. Cutting the state’s merit scholarship program has become an annual tradition in Tallahassee. In 2008, when affordable higher education was an actual priority in Florida, the Bright Futures program was allotted $435 million, accrued from Florida Lottery profits. In 2009, legislators started whittling away at the value of the stipends, from covering 100 percent of tuition to just 75 percent. With more cuts coming in subsequent years.

Lately, they’ve achieved even more draconian cuts by jacking up SAT and ACT test score requirements, allowing legislators to simultaneously eliminate huge numbers of Florida kids from the scholarship program, while gratifying their religious devotion to standardized tests. Students graduating in the class of 2014 will need a score of 1170 on their SAT, or 26 on their ACT. (Lawmakers didn’t bother altering the longstanding 3.0 grade point average.) Last year, 1020 on the SAT or 22 on the ACT qualified a student for Bright Futures. Three years ago, 970 on the SAT was enough. They just keep hacking away.

What shocks the conscience with the hike in 2014 test score standards is that the legislators knew very well they were eliminating stipends for the very kids who need them most. They made these changes, despite a well-publicized 2013 University of South Florida analysis of the new test standards. It not only predicted the number of incoming freshmen qualifying for Bright Futures would be cut in half, but warned that the state’s ethnic minorities would be particularly affected. The USF study predicted a 75 percent cut in black students receiving the scholarships, 60 percent among Hispanics.

Not that cutbacks endured by non-Hispanic whites and Asians won’t also be outrageous. About 40 percent fewer of those students will qualify. But the stipends, worth about $2,300 a year for a general level scholarship, $3,100 for the higher level (for a score of 1290 on the SAT) can make a profound, sometimes crucial difference for a would-be college student from the economic strata disproportionately inhabited by blacks and Hispanics.

The consequences for South Florida will be particularly brutal. At one time, 81 percent of the incoming freshmen at Florida International University (where 75 percent of the students are Hispanic or black) received Bright Futures scholarships. The USF study warned that under the new SAT standards, only 14 percent of incoming freshmen will qualify.

Less than 25 percent of the freshmen enrolling at Florida Atlantic University, Florida Gulf Coast University and the University of West Florida are expected to qualify. At historically black Florida A&M, the number of eligible freshmen might be close to zero.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, talking to the Miami Herald, called altered policies for Bright Futures policies “shameful.” Yet the powerful Republican members of the Miami-Dade legislative delegation, from the county most devastated by the new policies, paid little attention. Most them supported the revisions out of fealty to party ideology.

But the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights noticed. In March, the agency said it was “investigating allegations that the state of Florida utilizes criteria for determining eligibility for college scholarships that have the effect of discriminating against Latino and African-American students on the basis of national origin and race.”

There’s some sad irony here, given that the main criticism of Bright Futures over the years had been that the program doled out scholarship money without regard to individual need, awarding 30 percent of the funds to students whose parents earn at least $122,000 a year. But the revisions enacted by the Legislature will only enlarge the percentage of well-to-do Bright Future scholars — kids whose college decisions hardly hinge on $2,300 a year.

Of course, the cruel effect of this political meddling won’t be apparent in the election-year speeches you’re hearing about the importance of higher education to Florida’s economic future. Judging by what they’ve done to Bright Futures, the politicians must not believe their own utterances.

Except the rhetoric happens to be true. A study by the Economic Policy Institute has found that in states in which 40 percent or more of their workforce has a college degree, the median pay is at least $20 an hour. In states like Florida, where only about 30 percent of the workers have a degree, median pay falls to about $15 an hour. “Overwhelmingly, high-wage states are states that have a well-educated workforce,” the EPI report found. “The correlation is very strong.”

No doubt, as the election season heats up, you’ll hear state legislators and perhaps the governor talk in reverent tones about the correlation between affordable higher education and good paying jobs. They’ll say it even as they work to dim Florida’s Bright Futures.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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