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Feds investigate Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has quietly revived an investigation of Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships, a move that could reignite long-simmering complaints about the fairness of the popular program.

Since the program’s inception, an outsized share of more than $4 billion in scholarships has gone to white or affluent families, at least some of whom were wealthy enough to afford college without any help.

In recent years, state lawmakers — concerned about rising costs of the program — changed the standards to make the scholarships even harder to get, raising the minimum SAT and ACT test scores to levels critics charge will only further exclude poor and minority students.

State Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said the program is unbiased and based only on the merit of individual students.

“Bright Futures, from its inception, has always been race, gender and creed blind,” he said. “Whoever reaches the highest GPA and SAT scores receives the scholarship.”

But the recent changes appear to have jump-started a dormant probe many thought defunct, including the testing expert who helped launch it 12 years ago. The Office for Civil Rights would discuss few details of its ongoing investigation but acknowledged that it requested information about Bright Futures last year from some Florida school districts, including Miami-Dade.

A spokesman, via email, said the office was “investigating allegations that the state of Florida utilizes criteria for determining eligibility for college scholarships that have the effect of discriminating against Latino and African-American students on the basis of national origin and race.”

Similar allegations resurfaced in a public way last spring after a University of South Florida analysis predicted that the new Bright Futures standards would benefit far fewer students — the total number of college freshmen getting scholarships at state universities would drop by about half, from 30,954 to 15,711. The analysis predicted Hispanic students would see a 60 percent drop in scholarships, and black scholarship recipients would plummet by more than 75 percent.

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