NAACP to Proceed With Challenge to One Florida Initiative
By Pearl StewartTALLAHASSEE, Fla.
The NAACP will proceed with its challenge of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s controversial One Florida higher education initiative, as a result of a recent state Supreme Court ruling. The decision gives the civil rights organization the green light to continue its three-year legal battle against the Bush program, which eliminated racial and gender preferences in university admissions (see Black Issues, Dec. 18, 2003).
In addition to the legal action, One Florida has sparked numerous rallies and protests, including one that drew 11,000 demonstrators during the governor’s state of the state address.
In place of affirmative action, One Florida offers its Talented 20 program, which guarantees college admission to the top 20 percent of each of Florida’s public high school graduating classes. Its purported goal is increasing racial diversity in the state’s universities and colleges without the use of preferences.
The Florida State Conferences of Branches of the NAACP argued that One Florida, which was proposed by Bush and enacted by a now-defunct board of regents, radically changed higher education policy in the state. The NAACP contends that only the state legislature, not the governor or an executive agency, may make such changes.
But the 1st District Court of Appeals in 2002 determined that the NAACP did not have the right to sue, citing a 1980 ruling in which the standards were established for organizations seeking to challenge the actions of government agencies.
The state Supreme Court disagreed in a 4-3 decision on Nov. 13, noting that various other organizations, such as environmental groups, have been allowed to challenge government agencies’ rules and that “… it made little sense to grant standing to persons who had formed associations out of a common interest in protecting wildlife or the environment, and yet deny standing to an association that was formed to protect the rights of minorities and is composed substantially of minorities, when policy concerning the admission of minorities to state universities was changed.”
NAACP president and CEO Kweisi Mfume said the Florida high court’s ruling was significant on a national level. “The NAACP and all Americans who seek the right to challenge admissions procedures when they appear discriminatory are buoyed by this decision,” Mfume said in a press statement.
NAACP corporate counsel Dennis Hayes said the ruling “vindicated the NAACP’s right to bring judicial actions on behalf of its membership.”
A number of civil rights, labor and educational associations have joined in the lawsuit.
Despite legal opposition and protest demonstrations, Gov. Bush remains committed to One Florida. His office points to a slight increase in the number of minority students enrolled in state universities as evidence that it is working. Minority enrollment stands at 34 percent compared to 32 percent before One Florida. The plan has had little effect on Black enrollment, which remains around 14 percent. The African American population in Florida is 15 percent.
The Talented 20 provision required state funding, and the legislature added $20 million to the financial aid budget to support the initiative.
The NAACP’s struggle to topple One Florida dates back almost to its inception. The board of regents approved the initiative in 2000 just before Bush’s reorganization of the state higher education system took effect and the board was disbanded. Later that year, the Florida NAACP branches attempted to halt implementation of the initiative, which went into effect that fall. In addition to questioning whether the regents and the governor had the authority to enact it, the NAACP has challenged the initiative’s effect on graduate programs, which are not included in the Talented 20 guarantees.
An administrative law judge originally struck down the NAACP’s challenge, but not its right to bring the suit. Both sides — the NAACP and the state — appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeals, which ruled that the NAACP did not have the right to file the challenge. The civil rights group appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.
Now that the state’s high court has ruled in its favor, the NAACP will continue its original challenge of the initiative. “We believe diversity is worth fighting for,” Hayes says, “and we will continue this fight.”
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