TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday proposed spending $23.5 million to expand Bright Futures scholarships but did not address recent criticism of the program — namely, that new eligibility standards put in place to control costs have kept thousands of low-income and minority students from receiving the awards.
Scott's plan would direct new money to help students with Bright Futures scholarships pay for summer courses.
"By expanding Bright Futures scholarships to include summer courses, we are offering more flexibility for students to achieve their goals," said Scott, who held a news conference at the University of North Florida to announce his plans.
Board of Governors Chairman Morteza Hosseini said the proposal would help students finish their degrees faster, "reducing their debt and quickening their entry into the state workforce."
But state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, called it "odd."
"I haven't heard any constituents complaining about not having access to summer school," Rodríguez said. "What I have been hearing is that students at Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University who would have been eligible for Bright Futures scholarships (under the old standards) are no longer eligible."
The Bright Futures scholarship program dates back to 1997. Most scholarships are worth about $2,300, but top students can earn more.
In order to qualify, a student must graduate from a Florida high school with a minimum 3.0 GPA, and score at least 1,170 on the SAT or 26 on the ACT.
Bright Futures was a constant topic of discussion on the campaign trail in 2014.
Democratic candidate Charlie Crist, a former governor, hammered Scott for cutting Bright Futures "in half" in 2011. (PolitiFact Florida rated the claim Half True, saying it left out important details, including the fact that the Legislature also cut Bright Futures while Crist was in office.)
Both rounds of cuts were achieved at least partly by raising the standardized test scores needed to qualify for a scholarship, thus reducing the number of students eligible for the award.
The cuts themselves drew ire from higher education advocates. But the consequences of the tougher standards caused a public outcry.
In 2013, a University of South Florida report predicted that the total number of college freshmen receiving Bright Futures scholarships would drop from 30,954 to 15,711, and that low-income and minority students would be disproportionately affected.
One year later, an analysis published in a state Board of Governors agenda showed that low-income and minority students had, in fact, been hurt the most, with Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University being among the hardest-hit campuses.
Critics alleged discrimination, prompting the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to reopen a dormant investigation into the program.
The Office for Civil Rights did not find evidence of intentional discrimination. But in its final report, the office conceded that changing the minimum SAT/ACT scores had produced "statistically significant disparities, by race, even amongst otherwise qualified applicants."
Still, providing financial aid will remain a challenge for Florida colleges and universities.
In September, state universities said they would need $45 million in additional funding for need-based scholarships to help students shut out of Bright Futures.
State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, said he would rather see the governor spend the $23.5 million from his proposal on students who need the help.
"It's time to shift the focus to a hybrid scholarship program — one that takes into account financial need as well as merit," Bullard said.
Scott has spent the past two weeks unveiling pieces of his proposed budget, which includes $19.75 billion for K-12 education, and a $470 million cut in state cellphone and cable television taxes. He is expected to release the entire proposal next week.
His announcement Thursday also included a plan to eliminate the sales tax on college textbooks. Scott said the policy would put about $60 back in each student's pocket.
"Eliminating the sales tax on college textbooks will directly help every Florida student with the cost of college by offsetting the rising price of textbooks," he said in a statement.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @kmcgrory.