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Friday, Apr 27, 2018
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O’Neill: Is Bright Futures scholarship or student aid?

They’re called Bright Futures scholarships. They help bright Florida high school students with obvious educational upsides with in-state tuition. They are based on merit.

There was a time when none of that would have elicited anything other than unqualified praise since the Florida Legislature passed the Bright Futures Scholarship Act in 1997. After all, we were rewarding achievement.

Moreover, we were also addressing an ongoing “brain drain” from the Sunshine State to places that connoted something other than sprawl and a great place to vacation. Bright Futures was an alternative to hand-wringing over the challenge of keeping more of our “best and brightest” right here in Florida. And we were paying for it with lottery money, not tax hikes.

What’s not to like? Several things, as it turns out, more than a decade and a half later.

For one, Bright Futures’ costs exploded from the original price tag of $70 million in 1997. By 2008, those costs were more than $400 million. Then lottery funds peaked and the state even resorted to federal stimulus money one year.

Bright Futures needed budgetary reins, so Florida slashed the value of the scholarships and then hiked the standards that consequently reduced the number of Bright Futures recipients. University of South Florida analysts have projected the number of college freshmen getting Bright Futures scholarships at state universities at approximately 15,000 — or about half of what it had been.

Then the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights got involved.

It had been looking into Bright Futures, which has now paid out more than $4 billion in scholarship funding, because of concerns about its fairness. In short, it’s skewed to the better-testing affluent and white — even more so in the past few years when minimum SAT and ACT score-standards were raised. De facto discrimination against blacks and Latinos, it’s been asserted, has been the result.

Critics have called for a financial need factor to be weighed as well as a “sliding scale” that combines GPA and test scores to be implemented. Currently the minimums are 3.0 GPA and 1170 SAT. (Three years ago the SAT minimum was 970.)

Maybe what we need is the legislature/higher education version of a come-to-Jesus conversation. Is this about government-subsidized “scholarships” or government-subsidized aid? Is this about merit or about social-change agents?

If it’s the former, then serious, even daunting, standards have to be maintained as the top priority. GPAs, as we know, can be a function, in part, of school, curriculum and teacher variables. But they are hardly unimportant. If a “sliding scale” is to be employed, then the minimum GPA should be ratcheted up from 3.0. If we’re talking about recruiting our own “best and brightest,” wiggle room will be at a premium — even though results are not equal across the racial and ethnic spectrum. Maybe a well-reasoned, well-organized and well-evaluated SAT essay could be a tie-breaker.

If it’s the latter, then means-testing, not unlike with federal Pell grants — which currently help more than 5 million students nationally — has to be more of a Bright Futures’ priority than those “best and brightest” standards.

But this much is obvious. Given budget realities and state priorities, Bright Futures can’t be all things to all good, hard-working students. Life isn’t fair, but that doesn’t make Bright Futures unfair.

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Revel with a cause: Another State of the City speech, another exercise in soaring rhetoric, symbolic optics and diversity shout-outs. Mayor Bob Buckhorn definitely gets it: “From New Tampa to Port Tampa, we’re all in this together.”

With a riverfront and skyline as backdrop, the historic Tampa Armature Works Building for presentation ambiance, and a receptive, inclusive audience, he comes close to preacher mode. Nobody waxes euphoric about Tampa’s potential, can-do spirit and regional destiny quite like Mayor Bob.

But this time he also made news.

Jane Castor, the retirement-eligible Tampa police chief, will be back. Yes, that notorious DUI scenario was a TPD embarrassment, but her role in a 69 percent drop in crime over the last 11 years is compelling. She was nationally prominent in the incident-free Republican National Convention. It’s the right move.

And for good measure, Buckhorn underscored his commitment to the synergistic tandem of transit and regionalism. Yes, he wants a Hillsborough County transit referendum by 2016 — although he made it clear that he “would prefer sooner.”

And, yes, he’s more than an interested observer of what’s going on in Pinellas County, where his simpatico fellow mayor, Rick Kriseman, of St. Petersburg, will be a key partner.

“We need to support Greenlight Pinellas,” said Buckhorn of the Nov. 4 Pinellas transit referendum. “We need to do everything we can to make sure that passes. When Pinellas succeeds, we succeed.” In other words, he wants to see Tampa and St. Pete connected by rail.

And on that other matter that always finds a forum.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t mind his (Kriseman’s) baseball team.”

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