Opening doors


Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 14, 2006 at 9:17 p.m.
Nearing the end of his second and final term, Gov. Jeb Bush is going about the business of nailing down his "legacy."
Among other things, he wants to be remembered as the architect of "One Florida," his blueprint for replacing Affirmative Action with color blind policies that guarantee equal access to all.
But there's a problem: Since One Florida went into effect, the percentage of blacks enrolling in Florida's state universities has been in decline.
Last fall, blacks made up just 13.7 percent of university system freshmen enrollment. In 1999, pre One-Florida, black freshman enrollment was at more than 18 percent.
It fell to the universities to find ways beyond One Florida to maintain enrollment diversity. At the University of Florida, President Bernie Machen committed UF funding to need-based scholarships for low-income students who would be the first in their families to attend college.
That idea resonated with Gov. Bush. This week he unveiled a $52.4 million package of grants, scholarships and other assistance intended to help increase minority college enrollment. Following Machen's example, Bush's program includes $6.5 million that will go to help finance college for low-income families that have never before sent their children to college.
It is appropriate that Gov. Bush would unveil an initiative during a week devoted to celebrating the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Because just as in King's day, access to quality education - and especially to higher education - remains crucial to erasing the legacy of racism that still haunts our society and to opening doors of hope and opportunity for young minorities.
Florida's much touted Bright Futures - the lottery-funded scholarships awarded purely on academic merit - remains a politically popular initiative because it helps wealthy and middle-class families send their children to college at bargain basement prices. But Florida has for years stinted on need-based aid that can afford young people who struggle under the burdens of poverty and poorly performing inner-city schools the opportunity to get into college.
Bush's plan, so far as it goes, will help close the need gap. The largest share, $35.8 million, will go to help prospective students with the biggest financial needs. It represents a 36 percent increase in state need based aid, and it is sufficient to provide 116,842 students with an average of $1,152 each.
Is that enough? Of course not. We think the Legislature should double, even triple, Bush's recommended funding.
It seems especially insufficient in light of the $12.7 billion worth of cuts that Congress recently made to student financial assistance as a "deficit reduction" measure.
To try to balance the federal budget on the backs of struggling college students is poor public policy indeed. To make matters worse, Congress also saddled students who take out college loans with onerous interest rates and anti-competitive borrowing restrictions that will only serve to further close the doors of opportunity for many young people.
Having said that, it is unrealistic to expect the states to undo all of the damage done by Congress.
So far as it goes, Gov. Bush's new initiative seems to us to be a good-faith effort to help the doors of colleges and universities open for poor, and particularly poor black students. We just think the Legislature ought to go Bush one better and appropriate more than he's asking for.
Because opening the doors of opportunity to all, rich and poor, black and white, remains integral to the American dream.

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