The Big Bright Futures Lie
Around the State
Former Senate President Ken Pruitt had barely left the building before his Republican colleagues went to work trashing his legacy.
By the end of this session, the Bright Futures Scholarship program, one of the most popular legislative initiatives of the last several decades in Florida, will lie gasping for breath on the Senate floor.
What a sad and senseless story.
A wholly Republican-conceived success story, by the way -- Pruitt's baby from beginning to end -- Bright Futures comes from a grand attempt to right a wrong.
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.
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. It offered a golden incentive for students -- call it a promise -- that if you play by the rules, work hard and do well, you can have a college education.
It offered the American dream.
Here was the perfect use for the lottery proceeds: a genuine enhancement to education. And, what success:
* It led -- in large numbers -- to Florida's "best and brightest" staying home and being educated in-state.
* It created a healthy competition that stresses excellence at our universities.
* It brought about an increase in post-secondary degrees -- especially through the community college system.
Every year since its inception, some in the Legislature tried to siphon off Bright Futures money for pet projects. University presidents didn't help. They hated the program, because it created pressure to cap tuitions. And, the Democrats hated it, because "it's wrong to subsidize rich people." Nevertheless, with each threat Pruitt would work his magic and somehow keep the scholarship program pretty much intact.
In 2003, under particularly heavy pressure to downsize the program, he bought a little yellow school bus and spent much of the summer driving it around the state, scaring up money for his Brighter Futures Foundation. The foundation was a grass-roots organization Pruitt used to pressure legislators into holding Bright Futures scholarships sacred.
Students and often their parents came out to meet his bus. They mobbed him as if he were a rock star. I know. I went along on the tour briefly to see for myself.
"Instead of pulling back our spending for higher education," he would tell them, "we should be pouring more money into it" -- always to a standing ovation.
Now Pruitt, who resigned in 2009, a year ahead of his term-limit expiration date, has gone home to Port St. Lucie. No more savior at work in the Capitol.
And now what? Out pops a new generation of Republicans, shaking their heads, wanting you to believe Florida can't afford Bright Futures. And, right behind are the tune-changers, the Democrats, who suddenly want to keep "this one good thing that's happened to education in the Sunshine State" going.
Now hear this.
There is absolutely, positively no honest reason to gut the Bright Futures Scholarship program.
When Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, says, "We simply don't have the money," don't believe her. She's making it up.
I don't care if she is Senate Higher Education Appropriations chairman. She and her committee don't need to reduce the scholarship award, reduce the total credits covered, shorten the time allowed to complete a student's education (from seven to four years) or require a financial means application.
The truth is -- and listen carefully -- Bright Futures takes not one cent of taxpayer money. Never has and probably never will. Annual take from the lottery these days is $2 billion. As I said, one billion of those dollars goes to pay winners and administrative costs. That leaves another $1 billion.
The big worry, apparently, is that 179,732 students could qualify for the scholarship next year. So what? Even at an estimated $480 million -- a figure that sends Lynn & Co. groping for the smelling salts -- the scholarship tab is sill $520 million away from a lottery-proceeds max-out.
In case I didn't make it clear, that's $520 million in the black.
What this gang of thieves wants to do is break the lottery promise. They want the Bright Futures money to go to general revenue, not education enhancement. They want to shortchange education funding again -- wow, big savings, which they can make up with lottery money.
When lawmakers break any promise, it's bad enough. But, when they lay waste to one of the few measurably successful education initiatives in Florida in recent memory -- and do so untruthfully and, frankly, artlessly -- they really should answer to the people for it.
Reach Executive Editor Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (850) 583-1823.