TOPICS > Education

One Florida

June 2, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

SPOKESMAN: What do we want?


SPOKESMAN: When do we want it?


TOM BEARDEN: Last month, 10,000 people descended on the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee to protest Governor Jeb Bush’s plan to end race and gender preferences in college admissions and state contracting. It was one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in Florida history, and a visceral indication of just how hot the topic has become.

SPOKESMAN: In reality…

TOM BEARDEN: When he announced it last November, Bush called it the “one Florida” initiative.

GOV. JEB BUSH: I hope that you’ll get a sense that what we’re here to propose transcends the tired debate about affirmative action, and moves us to a different place that will be full of hope and full of opportunity. The new initiative that we are unveiling today I believe will increase diversity in the universities and in the state’s contracting, without using policies that discriminate or pit one racial group against another.

TOM BEARDEN: Bush said he was acting in response to court decisions in other states that have outlawed the use of race, national origin, and gender preferences. Florida is the first state to take such action without being sued first.

GOV. JEB BUSH: Affirmative action programs that use race as a criteria for admissions or use preferential pricing treatment or set-asides or quotas are constitutionally suspect at best. Case after case after case have overturned those policies, so as a leader in the public square, are we to sit back and wait for the courts to decide what our policy is going to be? Or should be proactively engage our constituents that we serve to change the policies? I decided to do… take the leadership model, if you will, and to engage Florida in this debate.

TOM BEARDEN: Initially there wasn’t much reaction. Then, about a month after the announcement, State Representative Anthony Hill and State Senator Kendrick Meek met with the governor to discuss one Florida. Tempers flared. The legislators wound up staging an old-fashioned sit-in.

KENDRICK MEEK, Florida State Senator: It was based on the fact that we couldn’t get a meeting with the governor– two members of the Florida legislature. Then the governor came in and was barking at us as though we were children, saying that if we expect for him to rescind his executive order, then we might as well order some blankets and get comfortable, which we did.

TOM BEARDEN: More sit-ins and demonstrations followed. Some African American leaders who had originally endorsed one Florida backed away. Minority and women’s groups accused the governor of shutting them out of the decision process, of acting prematurely. Yet the governor insisted that his plan was crafted to develop new ways to increase racial diversity without specifically taking race into account.

GOVERNOR JEB BUSH: Let me be as clear as I can be on this: This year, more minority students will be admitted to our university system than last year. (Bells chiming)

TOM BEARDEN: A key component is a new set of standards for admitting students to the state university system. Race and gender would no longer be considered, but several new categories would be added, including socioeconomic background, geographic diversity, and the quality– or lack of it– of a student’s high school. These are measures other states have taken after court decisions outlawing racial preferences. Another element is aimed at high schools: The so-called “Talented 20” program. The top 20% of each high school class is guaranteed admission to a state university, provided they have taken enough pre- college credits. One Florida also calls for money to improve schools that receive “D” and “F” grades determined by the performance of their students on state achievement tests. In contracting, the state would undertake a major effort to recruit minority- and women- owned firms to increase the number and value of their contracts. But many people, particularly minorities, weren’t mollified; among them, Representative Anthony Hill, one of the legislators who sat in at the governor’s office.

ANTHONY HILL, Florida State Representative: When you take race and gender out of the equation, you are actually doing away with affirmative action, because that’s the way… that was the remedy, and that’s the reason it why came about, and was called affirmative action, was to affirm some action towards minorities and women.

TOM BEARDEN: As the controversy grew, the legislature held a series of public hearings around the state to gather opinions about one Florida, pro and con.

SPOKESPERSON: Bush’s one Florida initiative is not an adequate substitute for affirmative action programs for women.

SPOKESMAN: I believe that this plan will better ensure that students in high school will get the education they need to be able to compete when they do get to college. This environment that the governor seeks I believe seeks to level out the playing field, so that it’s fair that all students are judged based on their ability and their own merit.

TOM BEARDEN: The governor emerged chastened, but said he had “listened and learned.” Modifications were made, and he reiterated his commitment to diversity.

GOVERNOR JEB BUSH, Florida: In the long haul, people will see that the number of African Americans and Hispanics attending our university system will increase. The amount of business that certified minority businesses will get in the state will increase, and when they see that, they’ll say “job well done.” But I have to prove it, and that’s what we’re going to do over the next six months.

SPOKESMAN: I present this initiative with confidence, because I…

TOM BEARDEN: But the governor concedes it will be a tough sell. Political scientist Lance deHaven Smith says the governor is treading on sensitive ground.

LANCE DE HAVEN-SMITH, Political Scientist: It has taken on great symbolic value. African Americans see it as a statement that not only raises questions about what their long- term future is, but also what it says about racial prejudice in the United States. And they have fears that they’re headed toward a slippery slope, and this is just the first step in the unraveling of efforts that have tried to bring them into the mainstream of American society.

TOM BEARDEN: The intensity and the depth of the feelings were evident at a recent meeting of the black student union at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

STUDENT: A lot of people– I would say a lot of white people– don’t understand what affirmative action means. It just proves that the myths and the misguided notions of affirmative action brought upon this program, and until you work and dispel these notions, and to work together, I don’t think you’re ever going to get a solution, as far as minorities are concerned.

JOCELYN MOORE, VP, Student Body, University of Florida: Although the governor has said he’s going to give all this attention to lower-performing schools, when you actually look at the numbers, “D” and “F” schools– and 70% of all minority students in the state of Florida are attending “d” or “f” schools– when you look at the amount of money that he is giving to the “D” and “F” schools, only $8.80 is going per student to the students in the “D” and “F” schools, while over $60 is going to students in the top schools, the “A” and “B” schools, and so that’s a huge disparity right there.

SPOKESMAN: The talented 20 would have first priority with regard to…

TOM BEARDEN: Despite the protests, the Florida Board of Regents adopted one Florida by a 12 to nothing vote. The job of actually making it work falls most visibly on the 12 state universities, especially the flagship University of Florida, with its relatively selective admissions standards. There are 2,830 African American students at the University of Florida, a little more than 6% of the total enrollment of just over 44,000. There are just over 4,000 Hispanic students. The university’s president was a harsh critic of one Florida at first, but now the university has established several task forces to deal with the nuts and bolts of eliminating race and gender from the admissions process.

SPOKESMAN: I told them I wanted us to start reaching out more actively to the local community, and…

TOM BEARDEN: Brian Dassler is an undergraduate education major, and a task force member. He says if one Florida had been in effect a year earlier, it would have been disastrous for the current class.

BRIAN DASSLER: What would have happened in fall 1999, had the one Florida initiative been implemented a year earlier, then the number of students on campus from diverse backgrounds drops significantly. It’s 400 fewer African-American students on campus this fall under one Florida, had it been implemented a year earlier, and about 350 fewer Hispanic students would have been on campus this fall, had one Florida been implemented a year ago.

TOM BEARDEN: But not everyone believes a racially blind admission policy would result in fewer minority students. Florida’s other premier university, Florida State, looked at the trend in court decisions, and began moving toward a race-neutral policy well before the governor’s initiative. They implemented it the day after the one-Florida announcement. John Barnhill is director of admissions.

TOM BEARDEN: If you don’t look at race, how do you have diversity?

JOHN BARNHILL: That’s a good question, and I guess we’ll find out at the end of this cycle, because we’re certainly hoping to have diversity.

TOM BEARDEN: Barnhill says FSU is looking at socioeconomic factors, and whether or not a student is the first member of his family to attend college, among other things. Some say that FSU also benefits from the larger minority population in the city where it’s located, Tallahassee.

JOHN BARNHILL: Our experience so far this year is that really our diversity numbers have increased, in terms of the number of applications from minority students and the number of accepts, even though we haven’t used the minority status or the race status in the process.

TOM BEARDEN: At the University of Florida, the administrators think they have a harder job. Provost David Colburn says that’s because they’re the most selective campus in the state system.

DR. DAVID R. COLBURN: The University of Florida has really had a luxury of sitting back and having the best students in the state apply to come here. I think it’s been as a result of our reputation, academic reputation in the state, among the state high schools. That reputation may not be sufficient in… with the governor’s initiative, because minority students may not choose to apply to the University of Florida. We have to persuade these they indeed need to apply to the university of Florida, that they’ve got a chance of being accepted.

SSPOKESPERSON: Once the admission officer has completed their work-up, then it will…

TOM BEARDEN: Director of admissions Bill Kolb says that means more outreach efforts, and a new longer admissions form designed to find out more about students than their grades and test scores.

WILLIAM KOLB, Director of Admissions, University of Florida: We’re going to be looking for people that can bring unique traits and talents, and a different type of student to the university.

TOM BEARDEN: That effort will include requiring students to write an essay for the first time.

WILLIAM KOLB: So we’ll be hopefully broadening our nets, in bringing in students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

TOM BEARDEN: Affirmative action aside, most observers believe there is more going on here than just college diversity, particularly in a presidential election year. (Cheers and applause) Al Gore has explicitly criticized one Florida on visits to the state.

AL GORE: I don’t think that people go for arbitrary decisions that control the destiny of a whole people and ignore the reality of our situation in our country.

TOM BEARDEN: The governor’s camp says national Democrats are behind the protests, trying to embarrass the governor and hurt his brother’s chances of winning Florida in the presidential election. Others say the governor was worried about the controversial anti-affirmative action initiative that passed in California. A similar measure was proposed for inclusion on the Florida ballot this fall. That might have mobilized minorities to vote against George W. Bush.

LANCE DE HAVEN-SMITH: The governor was trying to head that off, in part. He was going to propose this as a moderate position, replacing affirmative action with what he has come to call “affirmative access,” which is reaching out and trying to recruit African Americans and women and other minorities in to jobs. There’s also a rumor that he was hoping that by doing this, that he would prevent there being a huge black turnout in November, which there would be if the Connerly proposal were on the table.

TOM BEARDEN: Some of your critics believe that the timing of all this had much to do with your brother’s run for the presidency, and that you were concerned about a large turnout of black voters in the fall, which might vote against your brother.

GOVERNOR JEB BUSH: No, I wasn’t. I was concerned about keeping my word. I’ve learned from my brother, and others, including my dad, that you say what you’re going to do, and then you do what you said you were going to do.

TOM BEARDEN: The argument over one Florida is far from over. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has filed a legal challenge that could delay final implementation. But the state’s universities are acting as though it is already in full force, and are asking the legislature for more money for recruiting.