TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has revived a probe into Florida's Bright Futures scholarship program, which critics charge is increasingly out of reach for the students who need it most.
A spokesman for the department told The Miami Herald the office had requested information from some Florida school districts, including Miami-Dade, the nation's fourth largest district. He said the office was investigating allegations the state uses eligibility criteria that could have the effect of "discriminating against Latino and African-American students on the basis of national origin and race."
The popular program has awarded more than $4 billion in scholarships, and an outsized share of those have gone to white or affluent families. Some of those recipients are from families that were wealthy enough to pay for college without any help.
In recent years, state lawmakers have raised the standards to obtain a Bright Futures scholarship, increasing the minimum SAT and ACT scores to levels that critics complain will further exclude poor and minority students.
Those changes appear to have restarted the probe, which many thought defunct.
State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said the program is unbiased and based on the merit of individual students.
"Bright Futures, from its inception, has always been race, gender and creed blind," the chair of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee said. "Whoever reaches the highest GPA and SAT scores receives the scholarship."
A University of South Florida analysis last spring predicted the new Bright Futures standards would result in a big decline in the number of college freshmen getting scholarships at state universities — from 30,954 to 15,711. The analysis also predicted significant drops for minority students: Hispanic students were projected to see a 60 percent decline in scholarships, and black recipients would plummet by more than 75 percent.
A complete accounting will not be available until college freshmen enroll this fall. The base-level scholarship is about $2,300 a year for a full-time student. A more selective "Academic Scholars" level pays about $3,100.
Decades of research show that for a variety of reasons poor and minority students have lower average scores on college admissions exams. One key factor is that students from affluent families can afford to take SAT prep courses to help boost their scores.