One Florida Initiative Having Divisive Effect on State
TALLAHASSEE — Dexter Stallworth is just one among thousands of Floridians fearful that their children won’t be able to follow their paths through college.
Stallworth, his wife and his three young children were part of some 11,000 protesters who marched on the state Capitol on the opening day of the Florida Legislature’s annual session.
The protest — the largest ever in Tallahassee history — was in opposition to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s controversial plan to end affirmative action in state purchasing and college admissions.
Stallworth, who stood listening intently as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other politicians, labor and civil rights leaders blasted the proposal, remembers how the University of Florida recruited him in 1984 to attend the state’s most prestigious university as an undergraduate. He used that foundation as a springboard to medical school and a career at the University of South Florida’s College of Medicine.
“If it wasn’t for affirmative action, I’m not sure what would have happened to me,” Stallworth says. “I’ve got three kids. I’d love them to get what I got…I want them to be able to go to college.”
But Bush remains steadfast that his One Florida Initiative is a “third way” to help provide opportunities for minorities while at the same time ending race and gender preferences he calls “legally suspect.”
“Fairness and diversity are achieved without pitting one group against another,” Bush declared in the State of the State speech he gave to legislators while protesters stood outside on the steps of the Old Capitol. “There is a new energy for minority outreach that is unprecedented in state government…
“We will not take one step back in the struggle against racism and discrimination,” Bush said. “The place we are heading is a place where opportunity is real and lasting, not false and forced by government.”
A recent poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. of Washington, D.C., indicates that 54 percent of Florida voters support Bush’s plan, while 37 percent are opposed and 9 percent are undecided.
Bush has acknowledged that he is taking “the path of most resistance.”
For sure, that resistance is political, legal and even bureaucratic.
Florida’s efforts to become the first state to drop preferences in college admissions before putting forth a ballot measure has been clouded by the fact that Bush pursued his policies in an effort to minimize an anti-affirmative action campaign launched by California businessman Ward Connerly. Connerly, an African American, has led successful efforts in his home state and in Washington.
“A snake is a snake, whether it’s a White snake or a Black snake,” said U.S. Rep Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, one of Bush’s most caustic critics.
Brown is one of a large group of African-American politicians who have roundly criticized the One Florida Initiative. But other African-American leaders here have endorsed the initiative, including Dr. Adam Herbert, the chancellor of the state university system; James Corbin, the lone Black member of the state Board of Regents and Dr. Fred Humphries, president of Florida A&M University, the only publicly funded historically Black college in the state.
Presidents of Florida’s three private HBCUs have refused to take a stand on the proposal, though they could benefit if growing numbers of African-American students seek alternatives to public universities.
The proposed changes are being watched closely by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Florida is still working under a two-decade old consent agreement to desegregate its universities.
Plus, state university officials delayed by one year a plan to end the use of racial preferences in graduate admissions. The One Florida Initiative also does not end the use of race-based scholarships used to send Blacks and Hispanics to graduate school.
But Bush’s desire to push forward his plan this year is in jeopardy. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has filed a legal challenge in a state court that says that Florida’s Board of Regents lacked authority under existing law to carry out Bush’s proposal.
“We are concerned about the content of the One Florida Initiative,” says Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of Branches NAACP. “We think it does more damage to Black and minority students in this state than helps them.”
The Connerly Factor
It was the decision by former California Board of Regents member Connerly to make Florida his next target that sparked Bush to unveil his controversial plan last November.
Bush, who was elected with nearly 14 percent of the Black vote in 1998, called Connerly’s efforts “divisive” and said he would not support the initiative.
Bush had good reason to be fearful of the measure since a backlash from Black voters could prove costly to the GOP this fall. Florida GOP leaders want to hold on to the U.S. Senate seat now held by Connie Mack, who will retire at the end of his term later this year.
Plus, Florida could be a key battleground during the presidential election that will pit Bush’s older brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, against Vice President Al Gore.
Bush’s attempt to short-circuit Connerly was the One Florida Initiative. With little advance notice, Bush unveiled a sweeping series of measures designed to remove racial and gender preferences from state purchasing and college admissions.
His plan immediately came under attack from several leading Black politicians in Florida, including Brown and U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Miami.
But the outcry against the plan intensified in January when two Black state lawmakers — including Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who is Carrie Meek’s son — held a 25-hour sit-in in the office of Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan.
The younger Meek and Rep. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, demanded that Bush rescind his plan. Anger mounted against the governor when he was caught on videotape telling an aide to “kick their asses out” although Bush later explained he was talking about reporters who had accompanied the Legislators.
The two men ended their sit-in after legislative leaders agreed to hold hearings on the One Florida Initiative and after the Board of Regents delayed a vote on carrying out new rules on admissions. Three hearings held across the state featured thousands of opponents who castigated Bush, calling him a dictator and emperor.
After attending one of the hearings, the governor delayed pushing forward this year with legislative changes that would remove race and gender goals for purchasing that are now in state law.
But Bush refused to relent on the admissions portion of his One Florida Initiative. Regents unanimously passed those new rules in February. The regents’ action was approved by Bush and by other elected state officials who sit on the Board of Education. But a few days after that vote, the NAACP filed suit, placing the entire admissions policy in limbo.
“We will comply with state law and delay implementation of the rule,” says State University System Chancellor Dr. Adam Herbert.
The Chancellor’s View
Bush’s push to end race and gender preferences in college admissions is modeled after programs already in place in California and Texas. Herbert, the first African American ever to govern Florida’s public university system, pieced it together.
Herbert, who grew up in Oklahoma while that state was still segregated and endured racist taunts as a child, has a friendship with Bush that dates back to his days as president of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
There, Herbert ended racial preferences in admissions at the university, preferring instead to partner with inner-city schools and promise scholarships if students achieved academically.
“My feelings about race-based admissions decisions were based on two strong beliefs,” says Herbert. “First, I believed that the goal of achieving expanded student diversity could be achieved more effectively through outreach programs, which targeted schools with large numbers of minority students. My experience in setting up such programs reinforces that firm belief.
“Second, minority students are increasingly being stereotyped,” Herbert adds. “They and many of their colleagues assume that they were admitted solely or primarily because of their race and not their academic skills and qualifications. These attitudes make it very difficult to create and sustain a climate of equality, mutual respect and pride in personal achievement.”
Florida has an open door today for those high school graduates who want to attend a two-year college, the primary destination for most students who can move on to a university once they earn an associate’s degree. Less than 20 percent of Florida graduates go directly to one of the state’s 10 public universities.
Still, the system has managed to build up a diverse student body. Roughly 32 percent of the state’s 220,000-plus students are minorities. More than half of all minorities enrolled in a university attend just two: Florida International University in Miami and Florida A&M University here.
But state officials do not have a firm accounting of how many students were admitted based on race or ethnicity.
The only data compiled by state officials tracks those university students who were admitted and met the state’s minimum stand-ards — which fall far below some of the more rigorous standards at highly competitive schools such as the University of Florida or Florida State University.
The Board of Regents requires freshmen students to have at least a 3.0 grade point average and to have completed 19 college preparatory courses in high school to get into the state university system. In 1998-99, the 10 universities admitted 3,200 students as so-called “alternative admissions” who did not meet the criteria. That amounted to nearly 13 percent of the freshmen class.
Universities reported that of this amount, more than a third were admitted for “diversity” reasons. A&M officials say they waived requirements for 911 students to meet their “institutional mission” of providing access to higher education for African Americans.
This self-reported data is at odds with what Herbert and Bush have said publicly. Both men have said that race-neutral policies will work since five universities—including A&M, University of North Florida and Florida State University — have already removed race as a factor in admissions.
Yet nine universities reported in 1998-99 waiving minimum standards for “diversity.” A&M was the one university that did not.
“Diversity implies many things, including special skills, high schools, age, geography, in-state, out-of-state, etc.,” says Herbert. “The data do not tell us what approach each institution took.”
The Talented 20
Bush’s “Talented 20” proposal guarantees college admission to Florida high school graduates who are in the top 20 percent of their class.
He has vowed that the plan — which includes a 43 percent increase in the amount of state financial aid for needy students — will actually increase the number of minorities now attending the state’s 10 public universities. The plan also calls for spending more money to prepare minorities while they are still in high school.
The new admission policies that Florida wants to put in place mirror what Texas did in the wake of court rulings that outlawed race-based admission policies there. Bush, however, went further than his older brother’s home state. Instead of a guarantee for the top 10 percent, Bush expanded it to 20 percent.
The program is limited to those attending a public school in Florida. Those students who want to be part of the “Talented 20” must have completed 19 required courses in high school. There will be no minimum score needed on the SAT or ACT, but students will need to take the test so universities can gauge their readiness for college.
Those in the “Talented 20” are not guaranteed a spot at the university of their choice.
Preliminary figures show that 1,600 students — 1,200 of who are minorities — could be admitted under these criteria. However, just 410 of these students actually have the required coursework necessary to gain admittance.
But the rules call on Florida to retain some semblance of its old “alternative admissions” procedure. From now on, 10 percent of the freshman class can be admitted using “profile assessments” developed by each institution. These assessments can include such factors as geography, economic status and whether the student is a first-generation college student.
A&M, the nation’s top producer of Black undergraduates, will not be allowed to waive standards for students to meet its “institutional mission.”
“The rule adopted by the Board of Regents specifies that none of our universities can use race or ethnic background as factors in making admissions decisions,” says Herbert. “That includes Florida A&M University.”
While his students have been vocal in their outcry against the plan, Humphries has cautiously endorsed it.
“We’re going to win no matter what obstacles are in our way,” Humphries says.
Humphries, who told regents that they needed to be “mindful” of the distrust in the Black community toward the new policies, asked his bosses to soften its impact. After a grueling five-hour public hearing, Humphries asked them to keep the same percentage of “alternative admissions” as exists today.
He also recommended that the state universities should admit all members of the “Talented 20,” regardless of whether they had the required credits. He added that high schools should be given four years to build up their offerings — since data show that many high schools with a majority of Black students don’t have extensive college prep coursework available.
But regents did not accept his suggestions. Humphries has said he remains optimistic that his university will not be harmed by the changes, and that he expects the college to keep growing regardless of admission policies because it will still offer a unique experience to African American students.
“The institution is not doing anything but continuing to carry out our role,” Humphries says. “We have a cultural beat here. I don’t think anyone can legitimately argue that you can’t have academic freedom in the courses and cultural studies you offer.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com