Law & Courts

Jeb Bush Seeks Race-Based-Admissions Ban

By Julie Blair — November 24, 1999 7 min read
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Florida was poised last week to join two other high-profile states in replacing race-based criteria in college admissions with a system that promises students entry to public universities based on their class rank.

Following the lead of California and Texas, officials in the Sunshine State unveiled a plan earlier this month called the “Talented 20.” Under the initiative, Florida seniors in the top 20 percent of their graduating classes would be guaranteed a slot in one of the state’s 10 public universities provided they met the full admissions criteria. Race and ethnic background would be eliminated as factors in admissions.

Gov. Bush’s
‘One Florida Initiative’
Among other changes, the ‘One Florida Initiative’ would:
  • Eliminate race and ethnicity as factors in admissions decisions at Florida’s public universities, replacing such criteria with the “Talented 20" program. The Talented 20 would seek to increase diversity by guaranteeing every Florida high school senior in the top 20 percent of his or her high school class admission to a public university.
  • Increase state need-based financial aid by 43 percent, to $65.9 million in fiscal 2000, up from $45.9 million in fiscal 1999.
  • Ask lawmakers to allocate $1.6 million in fiscal 2000 for all high school sophomores to take peliminary SAT. No state funding is currently provided for that purpose.
  • Commit the state to spending $22.4 million in fiscal 2000 to expand Florida’s On-Line High School, targeting schools rated D and F under the state’s grading policy for schools. The fiscal 1999 allocation for the program was $3.8 million. The program offers advanced coursework by computer for students in low-performing districts.

“Preferences in higher education are being used to mask the failure of low-performing schools in our K-12 system,” Gov. Jeb Bush said in a prepared statement announcing the plan. Such racial and ethnic criteria, the Republican governor said, “make it easier to overlook the disparity in opportunities, play down the pleas of help for ... low-performing schools, and set these children up for failure.

“The Florida board of regents, which governs the higher education system, had to approve the elimination of race-based admissions criteria and the adoption of the Talented 20 program before the plan can take effect, said Keith Goldschmidt, a spokesman for the board. At press time Friday, the regents were poised to vote on the plan.

Ballot Action

Mr. Bush’s plan, part of a broader “One Florida Initiative,” comes as opponents of affirmative action based on racial and gender preferences have been gearing up an attack on such policies in Florida. The American Civil Rights Coalition, the Sacramento, Calif.-based organization led by businessman Ward Connerly, is spearheading a ballot proposal—similar to successful efforts the group backed in California and Washington state—that would amend the state constitution to bar such preferences. The state supreme court is reviewing the proposal.

The Talented 20 program would mean that about 1,200 additional minority students could attend Florida’s state universities next year, according to documents from the governor’s office. The plan also proposes increasing the state’s spending on need-based financial aid, college preparation, and professional development for educators, and setting up a task force to eliminate inequities in Florida’s precollegiate education system.

In addition to its education provisions, Gov. Bush’s initiative would bar racial and ethnic preferences in state contracts.

Mr. Bush’s plan comes after Texas and California have already prohibited racial preferences in admissions at their state colleges and universities.

In reaction to the 1996 Hopwood v. Texas ruling in which a federal appellate court struck down the state’s use of race as a factor in college admissions, Texas now guarantees admission to public and private colleges and universities in the state to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. And in California, graduates in the top 4 percent are guaranteed admission to public colleges and universities. The plan grew out of a 1995 vote by the University of California regents to phase out affirmative action; that policy was strengthened in 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 209, which outlawed racial and gender preferences in public hiring, contracts, and education.

Critics of the Florida initiative come from both ends of the affirmative action debate. Some contend the Talented 20 initiative would eliminate opportunities for minority students rather than increase their numbers on campus. Others say the plan doesn’t do enough to dismantle the current system of preferences.

The plan “is embarrassing for a state like Florida, where 25 percent of the population is a minority,” said Lesley J. Miller, the Democratic leader of the state House. “You’re really, really going to hurt minority kids with this whole concept.

“Many minority students who graduate in the top 20 percent of their high school classes don’t have the grade point averages or the test scores to be accepted to the state’s top universities, Mr. Miller said. “You are knocking them out of the flagship schools,” he maintained.

The overarching One Florida Initiative, however, would ensure that even students from poor schools or big districts can achieve, argued Lucia Ross, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bush. The governor, among other things, has called for the creation of a task force on inequities in the K-12 education system.

A total price tag has not been estimated for the One Florida plan. However, Mr. Bush called for lawmakers to authorize $1.6 million to provide all high school sophomores with access to the Preliminary SAT, a pretest that helps students predict how they’ll perform on the SAT college-entrance exam. The plan also would allocate $2.4 million to expand Florida’s On-Line High School, which gives students access to college-preparatory courses by computer. The plan also calls for spending some $10 million on a mentoring program and $1 million on a college-outreach effort.

The quality of education would also rise under the plan, Ms. Ross argued, because the initiative offers teachers bonuses for teaching Advanced Placement courses. The state has already formed a partnership with the College Board—the sponsor of the AP tests—to train educators in low-performing schools.But other critics say that Mr. Bush’s program would not do enough to ensure equality or build a fully merit-based system.

“Generally, we give the governor high marks for putting an end to race and ethnic preferences in the university-admissions process,” said Kevin T. Nguyen, a spokesman for the American Civil Rights Coalition, Mr. Connerly’s group. But, Mr. Nguyen said, Mr. Bush “left race-based scholarships untouched.” Nor did the governor deal with the race-based criteria for admission to gifted and talented programs in precollegiate education, Mr. Nguyen said.

Getting Ready

Meanwhile, officials at Florida’s public universities are scrambling to devise new admissions criteria.

“We really didn’t expect to have to shift to this posture this quickly. We were waiting to see if the ballot initiative was pushed,” said John Barnhill, the director of admissions at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “We knew, however, that it was inevitable.”

The university has been using minority preferences in making admissions decisions, Mr. Barnhill said. The institution will now likely step up minority-recruitment efforts and tweak the admissions criteria to include demographic data that will help ensure diversity, he added. Currently, about one-fourth of the students at the 30,000-student university are classified as members of minority groups, Mr. Barnhill said.

The University of Florida in Gainesville has already admitted 2,100 students for the 2000-01 academic year using race-based preferences, said David Colburn, the president of Florida’s flagship institution. Those early admissions are now in flux, he said.

Though Mr. Colburn said he was “hopeful” the Talented 20 program would maintain diversity, “the lessons out there aren’t entirely encouraging.

“Officials of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board say it is difficult to tell the outcome of their state’s plan only a year after its implementation. Enrollment numbers obtained from the University of Texas at Austin, however, show that the number of first-time African-American freshmen increased by 4.7 percent between fall 1997 and fall 1998. The number of Hispanic students decreased by one-tenth of a percent, while the number of American Indian students increased 2.8 percent. The number of white students decreased by 7 percent.

In California, the number of African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians offered admission to all University of California campuses dropped 9 percent in the 1997-98 academic year, the first year the ban on racial preferences was in place. During the 1998-99 year, however, the number of minority students jumped by 9 percent.

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