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Nancy Smith

How Did the Bad Guys Get Their Hands on All-Republican Bright Futures?

June 29, 2011 - 6:00pm

All of a sudden 177,000 Bright Futures scholarship families are getting hip to what Sen. Evelyn Lynn and the rest of the lugheads in the Legislature did to one of the most successful Republican initiatives in Florida history.

They Big-Brotherized it.

They added their own Obamacare touch.

They gave the state a way to "profile" scholarship recipients, to weasel deep inside the financial affairs of Florida families.

Does this sound like the work of Florida's conservative, small-government-minded, unintrusive supermajority? Of course it doesn't. But it sure is.

Here's what's happening:

For the first time in the 13-year history of Bright Futures, recipients must fill out a financial aid form -- "Free Application for Federal Student Aid" (FAFSA). To put this in perspective, the scholarship form required for signature is virtually the same as the form that will be required by Obamacare -- if the courts clear it for takeoff.

We would abhor giving the feds our information for a nationalized health plan, why would it be OK for a state scholarship?

There's no refusing. No form, no money, no excuse -- tough luck.

This year many parents, because they didn't have to in the past, skipped right over the form. They've completed the rest of the application but omitted the FAFSA. And they're just finding out they can't do that.

"This is a federal form and Bright Futures is a state program, paid for with state lottery proceeds," said Maria Morris, whose daughter is a sophomore at the University of Central Florida. "So, I thought it was a mistake and we didn't need to apply for anything to the federal government."

But the Morrises and every other Bright Futures family in Florida are obligated to provide tax information, documented earnings for the previous year, and other data not usually required of merit-based scholars -- students whose hard work and good grades had pushed them to the top of the scholarship list.

What's more, once filled out, universities have to fire the form off to Washington. If the feds don't sign off on it, the students don't get a class. It's that simple.

And each university has a different application deadline.

"Yes, I've heard there's some confusion," Darryl Marshall, director of student financal aid at Florida State University in Tallahassee, told me Thursday. "But we started notifying families on June 20, and we've had more than 2,400 applications, with the FAFSA forms included -- which is excellent.

"We're very, very encouraged by that response," he said, "and we think we'll get the number up to 5,000 in the next couple of weeks."

Gov. Rick Scott didn't sign the Higher Education Conforming Bill until the last week in May -- a busy, end-of-the-school-year time for many families. The bill-signing went largely unnoticed.

The frustration and anger isn't all on the families' side. A financial aid officer at the University of Florida, who spoke to Sunshine State News on the condition of anonymity, claims the universities were "blindsided."

"Some students and their families are virtually unreachable," she said. "They've gone on camping trips, for instance. One young man works as a commercial fisherman when school gets out, and I can't get in touch with him. By the time they find out, it will be too late, no scholarship for them. I feel as if we were needlessly blindsided."

She said one family refused to fill out the FAFSA form because "they didn't even qualify for a car loan -- 'everybody qualifies for a car loan,' they said -- and they didn't want to be embarrassed any further."

Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Evelyn Lynn tried to get the snoop-FAFSA form into a Bright Futures reform bill in 2010. But under pressure from angry Bright Futures families, the Ormond Beach Republican backed down. This year, buoyed by a compliant governor and a Senate chamber looking for a further raid on the Bright Futures-dedicated lottery trust fund, Lynn got the job done.

The whole idea? To bring Bright Futures a step closer to a full needs-based scholarship. It's a move that legitimizes profiling, that puts Bright Futures on the fast track to uselessness, that would significantly trim student eligibility, eliminate opportunity for middle class students who work hard, and leave the lottery money ripe to raid in 2012 and beyond.

It's like the bad guys -- the guys on the other side, not the committed conservatives I know -- got their hands on one of our party treasures.

Strange, though.

After the feds announced a three-year, $780,000 grant had been awarded to an FSU professor to see whether Bright Futures had worked as intended, Sen. Lynn jumped to the scholarship's defense.

She said she wasn't sure the study would shed any new light on the program because the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability had reviewed it in 2003 and determined Bright Futures was effective.

That 2003 study found that the states high school grads are better-prepared academically and that more are going to college, and the brightest are staying in the state, opting to get their education and broaden their opportunities right here in Florida. A subsequent study found that most Bright Futures recipients perform well and remain enrolled in college.

It sounds to me like weve looked at a lot of this already, Lynn said of the fat federal grant.

Reduced, stripped of its dignity, Bright Futures is a dirge in 2011. A scholarship in need of a champion.

How about the hundreds of thousands of Florida alumni in the last decade who owe their college education to Bright Futures? Now, there's an army. There would be a champion.

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

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