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Nancy Smith

Bright Futures a $780,000 Jackpot for Shouping Hu; Students Out of Luck

June 23, 2011 - 6:00pm

Please, God, give me three more years. I'll be good. Just let me live to see what Shouping Hu can possibly study about the Bright Futures scholarship program that hasn't been studied 10 times over.

Unless, of course, he's got a plan to snatch it from the greedy clutches of the Florida Legislature. That's what I'll hang on for. That's all I'm hoping for.

Maybe you don't know about Shouping Hu. He's a Florida State University professor who recently applied for a grant to see if Bright Futures can make a difference to post-secondary students' educational opportunities.

Certainly it's going to make a difference to his bank account. Did I mention that the Feds are going to pay him $780,000 and give him three years to complete his research?

Try not to think about how much $780,000 could buy for the classroom. Try not to think that all 780,000 of those greenbacks are your tax dollars at work, or that Hu's grant is one of literally thousands of federal grants awarded to study something in a college or university laboratory -- not all of it with life or death or even marginally urgent implications.

Yet, when all is said and done, I'm probably less appalled by the absurdity of the grant's dollar value in a struggling economy than I am in the idea that Bright Futures' overwhelming success should have eroded into a case study. After 14 years this scholarship program -- one of the most popular legislative initiatives of the last several decades in Florida -- should have proved itself. In fact, it has. The 2011 Legislature should not have left it shredded on the Capitol floor.

I've said all this before, forgive me for saying it again.

In the late 1980s voters approved a lottery for Florida primarily because those who sponsored the ballot initiative promised the proceeds would go to bolster education, not replace money the state held back.

It didn't happen. In fact, that broken promise was a bone that stuck in the craw of voters for 10 years -- until 1997 when Ken Pruitt, then in the House, and Don Sullivan in the Senate, crafted and sponsored Bright Futures.

Pay close attention here, Professor Hu.

Bright Futures was funded with 25 percent of the state's lottery proceeds, with an understanding that the scholarship program could grow to 50 percent without touching the lottery's payouts or administrative costs.

It paid 75 percent of tuition and fees to Florida students who maintained a B average in high school and scored 970 or better on the SAT.

It offered a glorious promise to families that previously couldn't dream of university education for their children. And it offered a golden incentive for students -- call it a promise -- that if they played by the rules, worked hard and did well, they could have a college education.

It offered the American dream.

And for the past 14 years, thousands of students have been motivated to work hard in high school in order to realize their dream of attending a Florida university. Many of Florida's best and brightest students have made the decision to stay in the Sunshine State because of Bright Futures. That was one of the goals. Trust me on that. I have very personal knowledge that the strategy worked.

Bright Futures was conceived not as another needs-based scholarship, but as a merit-based prize. It was intended to capture the middle class, and those among the middle class remain the program's most ardent participants. These are the folks who ask very little of government and receive even less. It's the majority of moms and dads the Legislature represents, the parents who share in the frustration and euphoria of studying with their kids at the kitchen table.

I'm not sure they realize yet that during the 2011 session, Bright Futures as they knew it -- and, frankly, loved it -- ceased to exist.

You want to spend your three years well, Professor Hu? Go to as many high school guidance departments in Florida as you can reach to find out how many students receive Bright Futures scholarships.

How did such an extraordinarily successful program begin to deteriorate? Blame the Legislatures of the 21st century, virtually every one of them. First, with term limits, the Legislature lost its collective memory. The further away from 1997, the dimmer Bright Futures' creation became. Legislators forgot the lottery promise. Bright Futures was well-established, they didn't have to think about it and they weren't involved in it. And the big chunk of money rolling in from the lottery proceeds was so tempting to raid. They kept whittling away at it.

Remember: On any year, when you hear a legislator say "there's not money enough, we're going to go broke with Bright Futures," it isn't true. Never once. Bright Futures was always paid out of lottery proceeds, never out of general revenue. Bright Futures wasn't gobbling up the money, the Legislature was pinching from the pot it had no right to. And sooner or later, lawmakers had taken so much, there wasn't enough left for all the scholarships promised.

The answer to that was to cut out the middle class students, get students to fill out family income forms, make Bright Futures a needs-based scholarship. It's on that doorstep right now.

The truth is, only two of Florida's state universities, University of Florida and Florida A&M, have given out all their needs-based scholarships. There is no shortage of money for the income-disadvantaged. Period. Bright Futures should remain as it was intended, a merit-based scholarship, an incentive to good students, a hand extended to the middle class.

The annual take from the lottery these days is roughly $2 billion; 1billion of those dollars goes to pay winners and administrative costs. That leaves another $1 billion. If the gang of thieves in the Legislature hadn't whipped so much of the pot -- call it another trust fund robbed -- Bright Futures scholarships would still have $520 million left for the college education of Florida students.

Let me tell you why legislators should want to fight like stink to keep Bright Futures as it was intended:

Because it creates opportunity and prosperity.

Because it creates hope.

Because it helps to transform Florida into a knowledge-based economy.

And because it plain makes Florida a better place to live.

Professor Hu, keep your eyes wide open these next three years. Not by any stretch will your study be worth $780,000 -- and I still resent that anybody saw the need to study a 14-year experience within a single state Legislature -- but, who knows, you might just find a way to give some of the money back to the taxpayers.


This is an opinion column: Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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