The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has quietly revived an investigation of Florida's Bright Futures scholarships, a move that could reignite long-simmering complaints about the fairness of the popular program.
Since the program's inception, an outsized share of more than $4 billion in scholarships has gone to white or affluent families, at least some of whom were wealthy enough to afford college without any help. In recent years, state lawmakers — concerned about rising costs of the program — changed the standards to make the scholarships even harder to get, raising the minimum SAT and ACT test scores to levels critics charge will only further exclude poor and minority students.
State Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said the program is unbiased and based only on the merit of individual students.
"Bright Futures, from its inception, has always been race, gender and creed blind," he said. "Whoever reaches the highest GPA and SAT scores receives the scholarship."
But the recent changes appear to have jump-started a dormant probe many thought defunct, including the testing expert who helped launch it 12 years ago. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights would discuss few details of its ongoing investigation but acknowledged that it requested information about Bright Futures last year from some Florida school districts, including Miami-Dade.
A spokesman, via email, said the office 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."
Similar allegations resurfaced in a public way last spring after a University of South Florida analysis predicted that the new Bright Futures standards would benefit far fewer students — the total number of college freshmen getting scholarships at state universities would drop by about half, from 30,954 to 15,711. The analysis predicted Hispanic students would see a 60 percent drop in scholarships, and black scholarship recipients would plummet by more than 75 percent.
Of all large counties, Miami-Dade takes the biggest hit from the new criteria. Yet the Legislature's Florida Hispanic Legislative Caucus, dominated by Republicans from Miami-Dade, has generally supported the revisions.
"Bright Futures was meant to be for our best and brightest," said state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami. "As we've raised the standards and achievement level in schools across the state, it made sense to raise the bar for Bright Futures. I don't think it is fair to say that just because someone is Hispanic or African-American, he or she doesn't have to make that bar."
A complete accounting won't be available until college freshmen enroll this fall. The current value of the base-level scholarship is about $2,300 a year for a full-time student. Florida also has a more-selective "Academic Scholars" level of Bright Futures that pays about $3,100.
But that money may be out of reach for many students who need it most. Decades of research shows that poor students and minorities have lower average scores on college admissions exams, for a variety of reasons. One key factor is that affluent families can pay for their teenagers to take SAT test prep courses, which help boost scores.
The College Board, which announced changes to the SAT earlier this month in part to address such concerns, has itself acknowledged that "too many feel that the prevalence of test prep and expensive coaching reinforces privilege rather than merit."
At Florida International University, where about three-quarters of students are black or Hispanic, the percent of incoming freshman qualifying for Bright Futures was once as high as 81 percent. This coming fall, under the new minimum SAT score of 1170, FIU expects only about 14 percent of freshmen to qualify.
Luisa Havens, FIU's vice president for enrollment, called it "silly and counterproductive" for the state to place financial obstacles in front of students who want to go to college. The Bright Futures cutbacks are happening at the same time Florida leaders publicly say they want to boost the number of residents with college degrees and make college more affordable.
"It's a very real barrier," Havens said. "Are students going to make the decision to go to community college, or to not go to school or to go part-time only?"
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the harm being inflicted on minority students is "shameful."
Last year, Carvalho and the Miami-Dade School Board pushed for Tallahassee lawmakers to reconsider their actions on Bright Futures — to no avail. Miami-Dade and Duval counties are among the districts contacted last year by civil rights investigators.
"The most significant impact is the poor and minority high school students who, just a couple of years ago, would have had a far greater opportunity of entering college," he said. "Now, it's undermined."
Bright Futures is funded by the Florida Lottery, which while immensely profitable couldn't keep up with the growth of the program during the last decade. In 1997, Bright Futures' first year, the lottery funded $75 million in the scholarships. By 2008, that amount had exploded to $435 million.
When the costs became too great, the state slashed the value of the scholarships and then cut funding and reduced the number of awards by hiking standards. This year, the Florida Department of Education budget calls for $271 million in Bright Futures funds, reflecting cuts of $38 million and 18,000 scholarships from last year.
Critics point out an irony in the cuts and changes: Although the lottery is most heavily played by minorities and the poor, they are less likely to benefit from the scholarship program.
Some who want the program reformed argue a better way to screen applicants is with a "sliding scale" that combines GPA and test scores. In that system, a student with test scores slightly below the cutoff would still qualify if their GPA was very strong.
Race isn't the only area in which performance gaps plague college admission tests. For generations, men have outscored women — in 2013, the gap in average SAT scores was 37 points. This gap persists even though women are far more likely to attend college and graduate.
The federal government's Office for Civil Rights has investigated college tests in the past. A probe of the PSAT for gender bias in the 1990s ultimately forced changes in how National Merit Scholarships are awarded. At the time of the federal inquiry, most National Merit Scholarships went to boys.
Both college administrators and the College Board acknowledge that it is high school performance, and not standardized test scores, that is the best predictor of college success.
But instead of changing Bright Futures' minimum 3.0 GPA, Florida lawmakers chose to significantly raise qualifying test marks — from a minimum of 970 three years ago to 1170 now on the SAT. The mean Florida combined SAT score was about 982 last year.
Legislative leaders also have dismissed including a means test that could reduce or restrict scholarships to students from the wealthiest familes.
Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, an organization that opposes the misuse of standardized tests, said the bar the state has set is fundamentally discriminatory. College admissions tests are not as neutral as the public may think, he said.
"Test scores are not merit," Schaeffer said. "Test scores are measures of how well you do on the test."
But in Florida education circles, testing has become the preferred method of evaluating public schools, teachers, and — in the case of Bright Futures — scholarship applicants. Schaeffer said Miami-Dade's Hispanic Republican lawmakers are wedded to the test philosophy, even in an instance when their constituents suffer the most.
"They are Jeb Bush Republicans," Schaeffer said. "Jeb Bush is one of the strongest believers nationally in the role of test scores in defining education quality. To come out otherwise would be an insult to their mentor."
It was back when Bush was Florida's governor, in 2002, that Schaeffer first filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights regarding Bright Futures. Also joining the complaint were civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The complaint got nowhere at the time, Schaeffer said. But when federal authorities confirmed last week that they are now investigating Bright Futures, they said the ongoing investigation was based on the old 2002 complaint.
An "investigation" 12 years after the fact? Apparently, yes. The U.S. Department of Education spokesman said "some cases take longer to investigate than others due to the nature and complexity of the issues."
Florida's recent changes to Bright Futures would appear to be a likely catalyst sparking the renewed federal interest. And with families and students struggling to absorb college costs, the fast-vanishing Bright Futures could become an election-year issue.
Last week, Gov. Rick Scott visited a Miami Lakes high school to talk with parents, students and school board members about college affordability. Scott was clearly looking to talk about tuition and his role in trying to limit increases and promote $10,000 bachelor's degrees at state colleges.
But some in the small crowd at Barbara Goleman Senior High School were focused on something else: Bright Futures.
"Pretty much the only way I can afford college right now is through merit scholarships. It's really expensive," Florida International University student Brayan Navarrete told Scott.
Navarrete's 13-year-old brother Christian is hoping to one day get his own scholarship. Without a scholarship, his mother, who brought her family to South Florida from Honduras, said she probably can't afford to send him to college. But the odds of landing one have clearly gotten much tougher.
Afterward, Scott emphasized the importance of keeping Bright Futures "fully funded" and said the criteria for scholarships is constantly under review.
"I always work with the Legislature to make sure they're done the right way," he said.
State Rep. Ricardo Rangel said the criteria need more work. For the second year in a row, Rangel has filed a bill that would reduce the minimum Bright Futures SAT score to 1020, which was the standard in place two years ago.
Rangel, a Kissimmee Democrat, learned English as a second language when he and his family moved to the United States from Ecuador. Like many English-language learners, Rangel struggled with the SAT, but he went on to earn a master's degree in management.
Rangel said the Democratic caucus in the House has agreed to make his Bright Futures bill a priority, but the heavy GOP majority means that Democratic votes aren't nearly enough. Rangel has repeatedly asked Miami-Dade's Hispanic Republican lawmakers to get behind his bill, but he hasn't had any luck. He said one lawmaker told him that expanding the number of scholarship recipients would cost too much money — a criticism he insists is overstated.
"I am a little bit disappointed," Rangel said. "This is going to benefit Miami-Dade the most, so I would have thought there would have been a lot more interest in it."
Joe Follick, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education, defended the program, saying it "has helped all of Florida's students have the opportunity to achieve the dream of attending college."
"We won't comment on the details of speculative complaints," he said. "But any assertions that this program is based on anything other than student achievement are misguided at best."