Getting to the end of his awareness tour, Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, warned USF students to speak to their legislators before it’s too late.
Pruitt, wearing a green suit and a USF tie, did not hesitate to greet many of the 40 plus students who gathered in Room 270 of the Phyllis P. Marshall Center on Monday afternoon to listen to his fight to keep Bright Futures scholarships, the pre-paid program and the university’s enrollment funding alive. Among those in attendance were USF President Judy Genshaft and Board of Trustees Chairman Dick Beard.
Pruitt made a stop at USF on his Bright Futures Express tour in his yellow school bus, which has visited almost all of the state’s community colleges, universities and about 40 school districts across Florida.
“What we try to do is to promote awareness and let the students know that there is a move afoot to literally take away the Bright Futures scholarships that many of them have,” Pruitt said. “And it’s also an awareness tour to let (students) know that state leaders have a faltering commitment to education.”
Pruitt advised students to stay informed about the issues concerning their education, specifically enrollment funds.
Established in 1997, the Bright Futures Program uses state lottery revenue to award college scholarships to Florida high school graduates who meet certain academic standards. About 41,000 students received the scholarship in its first year in 1998. More than 98,000 received it in the 2001-02 school year.
Bright Futures pays 100 percent of tuition at state universities for high school graduates with 1270 on the SAT or 28 on the ACT and 75 hours of community service in addition to a 3.5 grade point average. The program pays 75 percent of college tuition for students with a 970 SAT or a 20 on the ACT and a 3.0 GPA.
According to the Palm Beach Post, 35,000 Florida high school graduates didn’t receive scholarships this fall because of budget restrictions.
“Usually when (education) cuts are made students don’t know until after the fact,” Pruitt said. “Then it’s too late.”
Earlier this year, many students who were granted Bright Futures were in danger of losing funds because of tougher constraints proposed by the state Legislature.
“There was an assault on Bright Futures scholarships, on the pre-paid program and (the state) didn’t fund university enrollment,” Pruitt said. “That was a terrible signal from the state, both in public leadership and private business leadership. (The community) should demand more and demand better.”
This year, five states have ended or suspended their pre-paid programs, Pruitt said. He added that Florida has just spent $63 million building new prisons.
“I want to be safe and I want the bad guys to be put away,” Pruitt told the audience. “But if (the state) doesn’t start putting that kind of money in the front end with education, then $63 million is going to be a down payment.”
Pruitt insisted on the necessity for students and the community to create a relationship with the legislators in terms of having a voice through elected representatives.
“(People) need to get a one-on-one visit with the legislators to make them understand their concerns and to tell them their stories,” he said. “The most gratifying part about this (tour) has been the stories from students. … (Some students) are struggling but all they are asking for is a chance to go to school.”
Freshman Portia Gale said without the Bright Futures scholarship she would not have been able to attend USF.
“Not at all. Without (Bright Futures) my mother wouldn’t (have) been able to afford my college education. … Not everybody gets grants and federal aid,” Gale said. “If (the state) would have gotten rid of it, I wouldn’t be here.”
Gale added that it’s important for people in Student Government to get involved in issues that affect many students, such as the scholarship program.
“(Student Government) lets students like me know about events like this. I just found out (some state legislators) were trying to get rid of it,” Gale said. “(SG) spreads the word around campus about events that concern students.”
Student body president Omar Khan has been working with Pruitt’s office since early this year about Bright Futures.
Khan, who also attended Monday, said it was important to stay proactive about issues such as the merit-based scholarship by joining the Brighter Futures Foundation, which was established by Pruitt, and get involved by talking to lawmakers to voice concerns.
“Be cognizant about the issues concerning you,” Khan said.
As of Monday, Pruitt’s Bright Futures Express tour had visited nine out the 11 public universities and 26 out of the 28 community colleges across Florida. The rally will conclude on March 17 on the steps of the Capitol at Tallahassee, where about 5,000 students, parents, educators and advocates of public education are expected to attend.
“It’s not coincidental that the (state’s) budget will be released that day,” Pruitt said. “I want all these students (attending) to say: ‘Yeah, you took care of us’ or ‘No, you did not and shame on you.'”
Khan said he and other members of SG will attend the rally.