Mar 26 8:19 PM

Florida scholarship program under federal civil rights investigation

A graduate wears his mortarboard with Free at Last written on it at the commencement ceremony for Cypress Bay High School graduates in 2012 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images


Florida’s signature public scholarship is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to determine if the program discriminates against minorities.

Critics say the Bright Futures program, eligible for all Florida high school seniors, relies too heavily on standardized test scores to determine scholarship recipients, disproportionately favoring white or affluent students.

The investigation comes after a complaint lodged in 2002 by civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, charged that the scholarship’s standardized testing requirements exclude minority students with otherwise strong academic records, violating federal civil rights regulations. Standardized tests have often been called discriminatory by critics.

Under the program, students who meet minimum GPAs, standardized test scores and community service requirements are eligible to receive tiered funding at any Florida public college or university to which they are admitted.

Since its inception in 1997, Bright Futures has disbursed nearly $4.3 billion in scholarships.

According to FairTest, one of the groups that signed on to the original 2002 complaint, the initial investigation was hampered by politics.

At the time, George W. Bush was president and his brother Jeb Bush, a standardized testing advocate, was Florida governor.

“It certainly appeared from all indications that the Department of Education hid the report to save the president from having to punish his younger brother,” Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s public education director, told The Stream.

Now, twelve years later, the Department of Education has decided to take a new look at the role of race in the scholarship program. While no status report about the complaint has ever been released to the public, Schaeffer believes that changes to the standardized testing requirement sparked renewed interest in the investigation.

The new criteria are in the process of being implemented out of concern for the program’s ballooning cost. In the first academic year when Bright Futures started, $70 million in funds were disbursed. In recent years, the state has handed out up to $430 million in scholarship money per academic year through the Bright Futures program alone.

Legislators chose to raise the minimum standardized test requirement in order to cut down on costs. In 2011, a student entering college could qualify for the base scholarship with an SAT score of 970. For those entering college this fall, the minimum score required is 1170.

“The higher you put the bar, the more you skew towards upper-middle-class white and Asian males,” said Schaeffer.

A University of South Florida internal analysis from last spring also suggested that the new requirements would have a significant impact on minority communities.

According to the study, the number of students eligible for the scholarship under the new standards would drop by 75% for black students and 60% for Latino students.

Schaeffer suggested a requirement that blends GPA and test scores – something that has been supported by other critics of the Bright Futures program as well. Under such a system, a lower test score could be offset by a higher GPA, and vice versa, ensuring that relatively small differences in test scores do not make or break a scholarship.

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