ST. PETERSBURG — Alexia Boulet, a 17-year-old senior at Boca Ciega High School, has maintained stellar grades while holding spots on the cheerleading squad, soccer team, cross-country team and ROTC program, but her ACT scores put her just shy of Bright Futures Scholarship requirements.
“I was a bit disappointed, but me and my friends were like, ‘Forget it, there’s no way,’” said Boulet, who was accepted into USF St. Petersburg. “We can keep our grades up and get our volunteer hours in, but it doesn’t seem fair that they keep making the scores higher.”
The Florida Legislature has raised the bar higher and higher for Bright Futures scholarships, funded by state lottery sales, while lowering award amounts over the past three years.
Boulet, who will live with her parents in St. Peterbsurg while attending college in the fall, would have qualified for the award under the requirements in place when she entered high school. She even started racking up the required community service hours, said her father Pascal Boulet.
Now the family is preparing her for cheerleading and ROTC scholarship interviews in hopes of earning some extra money.
It’s that newest spurt of changes that may have prompted the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights to re-examine a civil rights complaint against the scholarship program filed 12 years ago, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
The college scholarship is too heavily reliant on SAT scores, and standardized tests have a history of yielding lower scores among disenfranchised minority groups, Schaeffer claims. Now, FairTest is compiling new information for the DOE about requirement changes since the complaint was filed in August 2002. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Florida NAACP, League of Latin American Citizens, Jacksonville Urban League and Hispanic Coalition Inc. have joined the complaint.
The percentage of white students eligible for scholarships was more than double that of Latinos and nearly 10 times that of blacks because of the test-score cutoffs, according to a FairTest report. Since the scholarship’s inception in 1997, more than $4 billion in scholarships has gone to “white or affluent families.”
“Florida has made the discrimination even worse by increasing the test score requirements for Bright Futures, and as a result ends up awarding the lion’s share of scholarships to Anglos even though other African-Americans and Latinos may be able to do better in college,” Schaeffer said. “The problem here is the test scores become the cutoff when research shows that high school grades are a better predictor of how a student will perform in college than test scores.”
This year’s state education budget shows cuts of $38 million and 18,000 scholarships from last year. Students have until June to qualify.
“The problem is a student that may have been at the top of his or her class in high school but didn’t reach the ever increasing test score bar will be denied scholarship money, whereas a student with only a mediocre academic record yet happened to do well on a Saturday morning filling in bubbles in a high school gym, possibly after their parents have paid $1,000 for a test prep course or other test prep steroids, gets the money,” Schaeffer said.
Pinellas students were awarded $16.2 million in Bright Futures scholarships last year, $1.5 million less than 2011-12 and $7.45 million less than 2008-09 when Bright Futures payouts hit a record high of $429 million statewide. Bright Futures awarded almost $24 million in Hillsborough County last year, a $9 million decrease from 2008-09, and $7.2 million in Pasco County, a $1.2 million decrease from 2008-09.
The average ACT score for Pinellas students in 2012, was a 19.5, 19.6 Hillsborough students and 20 in Pasco, well below the Bright Futures threshold.
Florida Rep. Carl Zimmerman, a journalism teacher at Countryside High School in Clearwater, said with more research he could see the Legislature, which sets the scholarship requirements, making some changes next year. In the interim, area schools have ramped up efforts to ensure students are signed up for not only Bright Futures, but other individual scholarships, such as those offered by the Pinellas Education Foundation, they may be applicable for, as well. Extra test prep courses are also offered at many area high schools, Zimmerman said.
“I think the bar’s been raised too high and they picked the wrong bar,” Zimmerman said. “Bright Futures should measure a student’s drive to keep up with schoolwork and maintain their grades, because that’s a lot of examples of working really hard on a consistent basis to do well instead of once on one test.”
In Pinellas, programs such as this year’s new online counseling system, Counselor Connect, allow students to track their progress more easily toward achieving the heightened Bright Futures requirements, and concerned parents may attend a comprehensive class offered for the first time this year to learn more about the changes. “Sending Your Child Off to College: College Planning, Preparation, Applications & Scholarships,” will be 6-7 p.m., Thursday, at Clearwater High School, 540 S. Hercules Ave., Pinellas County Schools spokeswoman Melanie Parra said in an email.
The scholarships still fills the purpose of rewarding hard-working high school students, education department spokesman Joe Follick said. The education department hasn’t heard from the Office of Civil Rights in “at least a year,” Follick said.
“I can tell you that Bright Futures is based on two things only, and that is how well a child performs in school and that they complete volunteer hours,” Follick said. “It’s helped hundreds of thousands of students, and there are multiple other scholarships opportunities available for students that don’t qualify.”