Florida could become the first state to voluntarily eliminate its race-based preferences in state university admissions and state contracts under an ambitious plan unveiled this week by Gov. Jeb Bush (R).
The "One Florida Initiative," announced Tuesday, could accomplish at least two things: It could result in classrooms at Florida colleges and universities that are actually more diverse than before, Bush said. And it could stave off an anti-affirmative action ballot measure similar to those approved by voters in California and Washington state in recent years that may have wound up hurting the GOP at election time.
Bush's plan, an array of executive orders and legislative proposals, seeks "to transcend the tired debate about affirmative action," he said, by eliminating policies "that discriminate or that pit one racial group against another" in the nation's fourth most populous state.
"These policies were intended to deal with the real and tragic legacy of more than a century of segregation in our state," Bush said. But now, he said, the same policies have become "increasingly controversial and divisive. What is viewed as an opportunity by one Floridian is too often correctly viewed as an unfair advantage by another Floridian."
Among other things, Bush's plan would guarantee admission at the state's universities and colleges to the top 20 percent of the students in every Florida high school graduating class, ending a reliance on SAT and other test scores that critics have accused of cultural bias. Bush said he will look to the state legislature to approve an extra $20 million in financial-aid scholarships for needy students, a 43 percent increase.
The plan also would end racial quotas and set-asides in the awarding of state contracts.
Bush's move comes at a time when recent statewide Florida polls have shown that voters oppose race-based policies by a 2-to-1 ratio. It also may deflect an effort to put the issue on the Florida ballot by California businessman Ward Connerly, head of the American Civil Rights Coalition, who led the victorious anti-affirmative action initiatives in California and Washington state.
In California, minority voters who apparently were antagonized by the defeat of race-based policies in 1996 were credited last fall with ensuring that the state legislature remained under Democratic control. In Texas, also in 1996, a federal lawsuit filed by four white students denied admission to the University of Texas law school led to the end of affirmative action programs at state colleges and universities, where officials have reported a decrease in minority enrollment.
Connerly's group already has secured enough signatures to allow the Florida Supreme Court to study the language of several proposed ballot measures. Although he said he needs to review Bush's proposal more carefully, Connerly praised the governor's intentions.
"I give high marks to the governor for seeking to put into place outreach programs which prepare kids to compete on their individual merit," he said. "The governor should be commended for taking significant steps to take Florida to a more colorblind society."
Bush's proposal could be a political firecracker as Republicans seek to woo the fastest-growing segment of the state's electorate--minority voters. Although many Democrats approve of withdrawing such programs, the issue is widely viewed as Republican-driven.
State Sen. Daryl Jones (D-Miami), who leads the legislature's Black Caucus, told the Sun-Sentinel that his initial impression of Bush's plan is that it looks "very good on paper."
"The proof will be in the pudding a year from now," said Jones, who had proposed legislation aiming to save the race-based policies.
Under the Bush plan, minority enrollments likely would increase because the top 20 percent of students in predominantly African American and Hispanic high schools would be guaranteed slots at state colleges or universities, said Bush spokeswoman Lucia Ross. In the past, she said, less than 20 percent of students at those schools applied for admission.
Special correspondent Catharine Skipp contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Gov. Jeb Bush announced his "One Florida Initiative" on Tuesday.