Tougher standards for Bright Futures likely to remain in place

04/11/2013 3:21 PM

04/11/2013 3:22 PM

Two Democrats have a plan that would prevent thousands of black and Hispanic students from losing out on Bright Futures scholarships.

There’s just one problem: Nobody seems willing to listen, not even powerful Hispanic lawmakers.

Starting next year, Florida students will need to post higher scores on the SAT and ACT exams to qualify for the state-funded scholarships. The change will likely cause the number of college freshman receiving Bright Futures awards to drop dramatically, with poor and minority students suffering the most.

In response, Rep. Ricardo Rangel and Sen. Geraldine Thompson, both Democrats, filed HB 387 and SB 526, which would maintain the standards as they are. But the proposals’ chances of moving are slim. Neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing, and nearly all of the education committees have stopped meeting.

Rangel, of Kissimmee, said he presented the bill to the Hispanic Caucus about three weeks ago in hopes of gaining support. He was “shocked and surprised,” he said, that caucus members offered virtually no feedback.

“It’s going to affect the Miami area pretty heavily,” Rangel said. “I would hope that they would open up their eyes a little bit as far as how it would actually affect their community.”

Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, a Miami Republican who chairs the House higher education panel, didn’t schedule the bill to be heard in her committee. She said lawmakers should preserve the high standards originally envisioned for the Bright Futures program — and make sure all students are challenged, regardless of their race.

“Are we going to say that Hispanic students can’t measure up?” Nuñez said this week.

Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who chairs the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, didn’t give the bill a hearing in the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, either. Fresen said he wasn’t familiar with Rangel’s bill, but that he wouldn’t want to dilute Bright Futures.

“Should it be tweaked to be a need-based program instead of a merit-based program?” he said. “Maybe. But that’s a different conversation.”

Predictions that the new Bright Futures rules will shut out poor and minority students are based on a detailed analysis by a University of South Florida administrator. The figures match Florida International University’s internal projections, Vice President for Enrollment Services Luisa Havens said.

For example, 85 percent of students in the current sophomore class qualified for a Bright Future scholarship, Havens said. But if you apply the new Bright Futures standards, only about 26 percent of students would qualify.

Havens said the university would try to help its students somehow. But she said undergraduates might need to take out additional student loans, and expressed concerns about a potential dip in enrollment.

“I wish I could sit here and tell you we have found a solution, and we have a plan,” she said.

Over the years, Bright Futures scholarships have been criticized for being too easy to obtain. In pushing for the tougher criteria, state lawmakers have said they are seeking to reward the “best and brightest” students, and prevent them from attending out-of-state colleges.

But the push has not extended to academic performance, which college administrators tend to view as a stronger predictor of college success. Bright Futures still only requires a 3.0 GPA, which is about average.

The state’s move also runs counter to college admissions officers nationwide, who in recent years have placed less and less emphasis on standardized test scores, saying the exams tend to favor wealthy students.

Rangel, whose parents moved to the United States from Ecuador, takes the issue personally. He learned English as a second language and struggled with the SAT, but went on to earn a master’s degree in management.

Rangel said he has been told the bills won’t go anywhere because they would cost the state too much money.

He and other lawmakers are trying other avenues to get the message out.

During a budget discussion on the House floor Thursday, Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, asked Fresen if he would consider keeping the standards as they are. Fresen said no.

Thompson, of Orlando, considered tacking the language onto another education bill that was discussed on the Senate floor Wednesday. She withdrew the amendment, but made her point anyway.

“I would implore you, colleagues,” Thompson said. “Take a look at this before session ends.”

Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@miamiherald.com. Miami Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez can be reached at mrvasquez@miamiherald.com.

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