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Republican lawmakers won't hear Bright Futures bill

Two Democrats have a plan that would prevent thousands of black and Hispanic students from losing out on Bright Futures scholarships.

There's just one problem: Nobody seems willing to listen.

Starting next year, Florida students will need to post higher scores on the SAT and ACT scores to qualify for the state-funded scholarships. The change will likely cause the number of college freshman receiving Bright Futures awards to drop dramatically, with poor and minority students suffering the most.

In response, Rep. Ricardo Rangel and Sen. Geraldine Thompson filed HB 387 and SB 526, which would maintain the standards as they are. But neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing, and committee meetings are winding down.

Rangel, D-Kissimmee, said he presented the bill to the Hispanic Caucus about three weeks ago in hopes of gaining some support. He was "shocked and surprised," he said, that the caucus members offered virtually no feedback.

"It's going to affect the Miami area pretty heavily," Rangel said. "I would hope that they would open up their eyes a little bit as far as how it would actually affect their community."

Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican who chairs the House higher education panel, didn't schedule the bill to be heard in her committee. She said lawmakers have a responsibility to preserve the intent of the Bright Futures program -- and make sure all students are challenged, regardless of their race.

"We talk a lot about holding people to high standards," Nunez said Tuesday. "As a Hispanic caucus, we took offense to the [Department of Education] watering down the standards for Hispanic students. Are we going to say that Hispanic students can't measure up?"

Rep. Erik Fresen, another Miami Republican, didn't give the bill a hearing in the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, either. Fresen said he wasn't familiar with Rangel's bill, but that he wouldn't want to dilute Bright Futures.

"Should it be tweaked to be a need-based program instead of a merit-based program?" he said. "Maybe. But that's a different conversation."

Rangel said he understands what some Hispanic students go through; he learned English as a second language and struggled to do well on the SAT exam. Despite his low test scores, Rangel went on to college and earned a master's degree in management.

Rangel said he's been told his bill won't go anywhere because it would cost the state too much money. Neither he nor Thompson is married to the exact language of their bill. Both said they would support a sliding scale-type solution.

Thompson, of Orlando, said she plans to introduce her bill as an amendment to SB 1076, a sweeping education proposal by Sen. John Legg scheduled for floor vote this week. She concedes that the amendment is unlikely to pass.

Thompson, a former teacher and community college administrator, said the new Bright Futures rules will leave strong students behind.

"You're rewarding the best test-taker is what you're doing," she said.