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Federal Civil Rights Office Investigates Florida Scholarship Program

The Bright Futures scholarship program in Florida is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights concerning allegations that its method of deciding who gets tuition assistance is unfair for minority groups. The news was first reported by the Miami Herald in a story on Sunday.

Bright Futures is a merit-based scholarship program that uses funds from the Florida lottery to pay college tuition for students to attend private or public two- and four-year colleges in the state. Recipients do not have to demonstrate a financial need to earn the scholarship.

Critics claim too many of the scholarships go to students from white, affluent families who could afford college on their own and that the eligibility criteria hurt disadvantaged students, according to the Herald. A 2012 evaluation of the program by the James Madison Institute—a free-market think tank based in Florida—calls Bright Futures "big and expensive" and criticized it as a "middle-class entitlement." But proponents say it rewards academic success and community service. and motivates students to excel.

A statement provided to Education Week by the U.S. Department of Education said the agency is "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, in particular with regard to its Bright Futures Scholarship Program, which uses SAT-I and ACT cut-off scores to determine eligibility." (For more on how the department handles civil rights complaints, click here.)

Since starting in 1997, Bright Futures has quadrupled the number of students served and expenditures have increased six-fold, according to the report by the James Madison Institute. To keep the scholarship solvent, the evaluation calls for changes to tighten eligibility criteria, such as raising the GPA requirements.

According to the Bright Futures website, the minimum college-entrance exam test scores to qualify for the programs and community service hours have increased over time. While the scholarship initially funded up to seven years of study after high school, now it covers just five, the website shows.

The investigation comes as the College Board earlier this month announced changes to the SAT in 2016 and free access to online test prep to level the playing field for students from all backgrounds. Minority students generally score lower on college-entrance exams that others, according to the latest report from the College Board,  And critics, such as the National Center for Fair and Open Testing contend the tests themselves are culturally biased.

The U.S. Education Department first began investigating Bright Futures in 2002, but charges never materialized. The case re-opened recently, which the Herald said could stir up long-time concerns about the program's fairness.

Just how to provide tuition assistance in effective, yet equitable ways, has been the topic of discussion in many states recently, as I explored in a recent article for Education Week.

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