The Florida Legislature every year dims the bulb on our children’s Bright Future. And although the economy is strengthening and the state for the first time in a few years is operating under a surplus, the Bright Futures Scholarship Fund has continued to be gutted.
The lottery-financed, college-scholarship program, Bright Futures, began in 1997 with great promise. “The Florida Lottery’s mission is to maximize revenues for the enhancement of public education in Florida.” In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, the Florida Lottery donated $1.31 billion to the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, surpassing the $1 billion mark for the eleventh time in its history. In 2012/2013, the same fund received more than $1.41 billion.
At first glance, one would assume that the scholarship fund is doing great. Unfortunately, it’s just the opposite. At its peak, the program provided college scholarships to one in three high school graduates, when it received $429 million a year and provided financial support to 179,000 students. This year alone, Bright Futures saw cuts of $38 million and 18,000 scholarships from last year. Which makes it almost a 50 percent cut from its peak. In addition, the state has increased the qualifying scores for the students. Although the 3.0 GPA remains in effect, students who test poorly will be penalized with the new SAT/ACT score requirements. Now only one in eight high school graduates will benefit from the program. This means approximately 20,000 less graduating seniors will be able to count on these scholarships.
A 2013 Orlando Sentinel report stated that under tougher rules, about half of the students entering University of Central Florida in 2014, two-thirds of Florida State University students and three-quarters of University of Florida students would qualify, according to an analysis by the University of South Florida. “Almost all freshmen entering historically black Florida A&M University would not qualify in 2014,” the newspaper reported.
The Lotto was supposed to supplement our educational fund, but along the way it started to supplant the state’s share in funding education. Every year the budget is worked on between the Governor, the Speaker of the House, and the Senate President. And every year, our education fund is lumped in with all of the other issues of our state. Allocations to the budget are made by the Speaker. Members do not see the allocations until midway through the session and have no ability to be a part of the budget decisions. Once allocations are complete, the budget is complete. Members are either forced to have private meetings or plainly vote yes or no.
How can we, as parents, plan for the educational future of our children when we have no sense of what we are working with? How can anyone champion the cause when even our state legislators can’t even participate in the conversation to fund the program? This is not a program that we should take lightly and just accept whatever comes our way in the state budget. The Florida Lottery gives billions of dollars to our state with the understanding of our voters that it will fund our educational system. And yet every year, it is caught up in the political gamesmanship of our politicians.
I, for one, would like to know where the rest of the money is going. The research is not easy to find. And when I ask our elected officials for answers, they have to dig as hard as I do. Everyone knows that the odds are not favorable when playing the lottery. But I never anticipated that our state would gamble as much as they do on the educational future of our children. It is time for us to start asking questions.
SRQ Daily Columnist Susan Nilon is the president of Florida Talk Radio and owner of WSRQ Radio. She hosts “The Nilon Report” on WSRQ Sarasota 1220AM/106.9FM weekdays 4pm-6pm