TALLAHASSEE — Florida did not violate anti-discrimination laws by using standardized test scores to award Bright Futures scholarships, the U.S. Department of Education has found.
The department's Office for Civil Rights had been investigating the Bright Futures program, which awards college scholarships based on grade point averages and SAT or ACT scores, among other factors. The inquiry was based on allegations that the eligibility criteria had the effect of discriminating against Hispanic and African-American students.
But federal authorities found "insufficient evidence of a legal violation" and concluded the investigation Wednesday, according to a memo addressed to Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and obtained by the Times/Herald.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who opposed the inquiry, said he was glad federal authorities had ended the "baseless investigation."
"The Bright Futures program has helped thousands of Florida's top students finance their college educations and given them the foundation for successful careers," Rubio said in a statement.
But Bob Schaeffer, a national testing expert whose group FairTest filed the original complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, was disappointed in the outcome.
"It is not surprising that the U.S. Department of Education — a national leader in promoting misuse and overuse of standardized exam results to assess students, teachers and schools — would decline to take action against Florida's test-score based scholarships despite its own finding of the program's 'statistically significant' negative impact on African-Americans and Hispanics," he said.
For most full-time students, Bright Futures scholarships are worth about $2,300 a year. Top students can receive about $3,100.
The program has long been popular among students, parents and guidance counselors. But critics point out that an outsized share of the scholarships go to white and affluent students.
FairTest filed the complaint in 2002 with the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens.
For years, the investigation appeared to be dormant. But the scholarship program received renewed attention in 2010 and 2011, when Florida lawmakers attempted to rein in spending on Bright Futures by hiking the minimum SAT and ACT requirements. The changes were phased in over time.
In 2013, the University of South Florida predicted the total number of college freshmen getting scholarships at state universities would drop from 30,954 to 15,711, and that poor and minority students would be disproportionately affected.
An analysis published in the Board of Governors agenda in September found that the changes had affected 38 percent of last year's freshman class.
Minority students were more likely to be shut out of the program. Statewide, 47 percent of Hispanic freshman and 62 percent of black freshman who would have received Bright Futures awards under the old criteria were no longer eligible.
Thirty-nine percent of freshman at the University of South Florida who would have received awards under the 2012 criteria were shut out, the analysis found.
The Office for Civil Rights, in its memo Wednesday, acknowledged that the SAT/ACT minimum score requirement had produced "statistically significant disparities, by race, even amongst otherwise qualified applicants."
But the office found "no evidence of intentional discrimination, either direct or circumstantial."
Dropping the requirement and funding scholarships for all eligible students would cost Florida too much money, federal authorities wrote in the report. And dropping the requirement and increasing other academic eligibility requirements, such as the minimum GPA, might also eliminate significant portions of black and Hispanic students.
Responding to Wednesday's report, Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House, stressed that every decision about Bright Futures had been made "entirely on setting priorities in the face of budgetary constraints, not with any regard to race or with any intent to include or exclude students of any particular background as this federal investigation suggested."
Rubio said he hoped future decisions about the program would be handled at the state and local levels.
Schaeffer was able to find one silver lining.
"We are pleased, however, that the U.S. Department of Education recognized that some students who score low on the SAT and ACT will do well in college," he said.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @KMcGrory.