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A dim future?

It always seemed like a great idea.

The Florida state government would take funds created by the Florida Lottery and pump it back into education. The money would be given to the top Florida high school students to help them pay for their education, as long as they attended a university within the state.

And with that simple idea, the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship program was born in 1997.

At its peak, the program offered year-round tuition coverage for the best students. In the 2000-2001 school year, the program paid $164 million for 87,000 students. Of those students, 75 percent earned grades high enough to renew their status in Bright Futures.

But the good times just didn’t last.

Paralleling the rest of the state and the nation, the program suffered from the effects of Sept. 11 in the form of budget cutbacks.

In addition, Bright Futures suffered in the court of public opinion, at least in the minds of some. According to David Foy, executive director for the Florida Student Association, the program faced federal lawsuits from Latin-American groups and from the NAACP for discrimination against minority groups.

In addition, lack of funds forced Bright Futures to drop its summer coverage this year.

All of the factors leading to the Bright Futures’ slide forced student leaders around the state to meet during the summer. On Aug. 21, the FSA and State University Students made what is being called a historic announcement by releasing an outline of proposals to improve the program. The announcement marked the first time since Bright Futures’ inception that FSA proposed any action other than to keep the status quo.

The FSA released six student policy recommendations. Foy said that while the group may have wanted to remain silent about the program, its hand was forced by the Florida Board of Education, the Higher Education Funding Council, and other groups.

“(Those groups have) been talking about totally overhauling the program. That’s why the students came out,” Foy said. “I think they would love to keep the status quo, but they understand with all the problems that some things are going to change, and Bright Futures is one of those things.”

Foy said the FSA’s recommendations are meant to increase standards for admission into the program. He said students will now be asked to take accelerated learning courses and score higher on standardized tests. The goal, Foy said, is to improve the quality of students in the program.

“(Student leaders feel that) the way to make it the best (scholarship program) in the country is to increase merit standards,” Foy said.

The FSA recommended that the new grade point average requirement for initial award recipients should rise from 3.0 to 3.2. For standardized tests, the FSA recommends an increase in minimum score on the SAT from 970 to 1030 and 20 to 22 on the ACT.

In addition, the FSA told state policymakers that if Bright Futures will no longer cover summer classes, then the required nine summer credit hours should be removed. The FSA asks that rule changes should be grandfathered in to assure no student is at a disadvantage.

On the FSA’s final recommendation, which stresses opposition to decoupling the program from tuition and fees, the group sends a clear message of criticism to boards of trustees members throughout the state.

“With the recent governance changes in Florida, the push by university boards of trustees to set tuition at a local level, and the recent downturn in Florida’s budget, Florida’s students can be assured of one thing – future double-digit increases in tuition and fees,” the FSA report said.

With the recommendations outlined by the FSA, Foy said the group hopes to send a message to education leaders that Bright Futures needs to be saved.

“I think the goal is to make it a better program to increase the vitality of the program,” Foy said.