A year and a half ago, Florida reached a civil rights agreement with the Education Department to promote opportunities for minority students in the state's public colleges. The five-year pact, signed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles (D), was an outgrowth of two decades of federal involvement in undoing what was once a strictly segregated system of higher education in the southern state.
Last week, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who took office in January, proposed to end affirmative action in admissions at the state's 10 colleges and instead guarantee admission to the top 20 percent of graduating seniors from every high school in the state. The state's board of regents is likely to approve Bush's plan this Friday.
That sequence of events suggests that a new governor from a different party is backing out of his predecessor's agreement with the federal government. Bush's plan to eliminate the consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions does appear to modify one of the "partnership commitments" that Chiles made in July 1998.
"Alternative admission criteria will continue to be used as a means of broadening the opportunities of students, including minorities, to attend [state] universities," Florida pledged in the 85-page pact.
The document does not specify which "alternative admission criteria" would be used for applicants not meeting the state's academic standards, but those criteria have in practice included race and the goal of diversity as well as athletic and artistic ability. Last year, race or diversity helped 1,950 minority applicants get into Florida colleges, according to the board of regents. Bush's office has estimated a smaller number of minority students--a maximum of 1,200--would become eligible for admission under his plan's top 20 percent-of-the-class standard.
Bush spokeswoman Lucia Ross said the plan is "fully consistent" with the 1998 agreement and "promotes the goals" of college opportunities for minority students.
The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, which negotiated the agreement and has been criticized as too liberal during the Clinton administration, does not sound to be in a fighting mood over the proposed unilateral change.
"We are in the process of reviewing the governor's executive order in light of the partnership commitments we have with the state in terms of desegregation of higher education," said Raymond Pierce, deputy assistant secretary for civil rights. "If we have any concerns, we'll definitely sit down with the state of Florida and work them out."
Pierce said his office planned to contact Florida about the new criteria but emphasized the bulk of the agreement focuses on such issues as preventing minority students from dropping out and providing them academic support services.
The Congressional Black Caucus, which has three members from Florida, has condemned Bush's plan. Caucus members said they fear minority applicants would be bounced from the flagship University of Florida and Florida State University to second-tier colleges.
One caucus member, Rep. Carrie Meek (D-Fla.), is a living reminder of the reasons for federal monitoring.
"In 1947, by state law, I had to leave the state of Florida to get a postgraduate education," Meek recalled. "The state paid my way to the University of Michigan to keep me out of the University of Florida or Florida State University."
To mount a challenge to the proposed changes in admissions policy, opponents of Bush's plan would have to file a new complaint, Pierce said.