Group Plans Federal Challenge To New Florida Scholarship Program

Jul 15, 2014

Credit Monash University / https://www.flickr.com/photos/monashuni/

Florida’s new scholarship program for National Merit and Achievement Scholars is heading toward a legal challenge. Critics of the new program claim it discriminates against minority students.

The looming challenge to the Florida Incentive Scholarship Program is rooted in the state’s current Bright Futures Scholarship for high achieving students. For the past few years, the state has been scaling back the number of students getting those scholarships. It's done so by raising eligibility requirements, largely  SAT and ACT scores.

“It used to be that 1-in-3 students received a bright future’s scholarship. This year 1-in-8 students received a bright futures scholarship," says Troy Miller, Senior Policy Analyst for the Florida College Access Network. The organization published a report back in April warning more than 80,000 students, many of them black and Latino, may lose out on scholarships because of the higher SAT and ACT requirements.

“It’s difficult to significantly increase your test score on the SAT or ACT unless you have some sort of assistance. And assistance for those type of exams typically don’t come cheap," Miller says.

The tougher requirements on Bright Futures have also caught the eye of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which has re-started an investigation into the program. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing is backing that challenge. The group successfully challenged the National Merit Scholarship Award program in the 1990's, forcing the program to change the way it awards scholarships. Now, it's asking the federal government to extend to the Bright Futures probe to the new Florida Incentive Scholarship Program, which gives national merit and achievement scholars additional dollars if they attend Florida colleges and universities. The national merit scholarship program is partly based on the preliminary SAT test.

“All a test measures is how well you do on a test. Something understood by a growing number of colleges right here in Florida, which have dropped test requirements," says Center Spokesman Bob Schaeffer.

"Schools like Rollins—the number one liberal arts college in the South, and Stetson and St. Leo—they’re all test optional because they recognize the SAT and the ACT are not good measures of how well someone should do in college.”

Schaeffer is also critical of how the program was created—through very little debate in the Florida legislature. But Tallahassee Democratic Senator Bill Montford, who served on both of the bill’s reference committees says the program wasn’t very controversial.

“It just made good common sense to take a step to encourage these young men and women to remain in Florida and go to our university and college system," Montford says.

Still, the Senator says agrees with critics of the program that it may be time for the state to review all of its financial aid systems. Florida offers state based aid to residents, first-generation in college students, children and families of deceased or disabled veterans and others. Florida College Access Network analyst  Miller says many students eligible for the aid are choosing out-of-state schools.

“Whether that’s due to the lack of effectiveness of bright futures or something else you wouldn’t know unless you looked at it closer," he says. "That’s what we’re advocating for. To take a closer look at the $500 million each year we’re spending to invest in our talent pool.”

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