In March 2000, opponents of Gov. Jeb Bush’s One Florida plan marched on the Capitol 11,000 strong, calling him “Jeb Crow.”
The marchers, including civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, predicted that the plan to do away with affirmative action in university admissions would undermine decades of progress in minority enrollment.
It’s a memory that Democrat Bill McBride, seeking to upset Bush’s reelection bid, hopes remains fresh in the minds of black voters when they cast their ballots Nov. 5.
Yet three years after Bush announced One Florida, his plan has not been the catastrophe critics predicted.
To be sure, the results are somewhat ambiguous and hard to judge, since only two full admission cycles have passed under One Florida.
And critics argue it will take time to determine whether the program is actually increasing minority enrollment or hampering it, given the state’s ever-increasing minority population.
But in the short term, one thing is clear: Minority freshman enrollments at state universities are holding their own and, in some cases, have improved.
At the University of Florida, the state’s most selective institution, the percentage of black freshmen, which dipped the first year of One Florida, has rebounded to 10 percent, the second highest ever.
At all 11 state universities combined, minorities constitute 36.6 percent of freshmen, about what it was before One Florida, though black enrollment is down slightly _ by less than 1 percent.
However, minority enrollment would look better if not for a pair of apparent anomalies: Out-of-state enrollment at historically black Florida A&M University was down about 100 freshmen this year. Officials there blame the drop on a 10-percent out-of-state tuition hike, not on admissions policies.
And 142 students at Florida State University, more than twice as many as a year ago, did not report their race or ethnicity. Officials believe that could account for a 2 percent drop in Hispanic freshmen.
Bush claims victory: “My critics said there would be a huge drop in minority enrollment. There hasn’t. They said there would be fewer minorities in college. There aren’t. What my critics said would happen, didn’t.”
Indeed, a burgeoning state university system has meant more minority freshmen than ever before: 12,705 this year, compared to 11,466 before One Florida.
Many education experts _ even affirmative-action supporters _ laud Bush for One Florida’s impact on high schools, where increased funding has encouraged college-prep classes such as calculus in low-performing high schools. Long term, they expect such investment will go a long way toward closing the minority achievement gap.
One Florida’s record is no accident: Bush spent months developing a strategy to ensure minority enrollment wouldn’t drop.
He embraced a new set of standards _ one that gives poor children a better shot at college regardless of race _ and pushed universities to use race-conscious tools, such as targeting minorities for recruitment and scholarships.
But for all the forethought, Bush made a huge public-relations blunder that overshadows One Florida’s record and threatens his chance to win a significant portion of the black vote next week, as he did in 1998.
Bush vetted his plan largely in secret, springing it on an unsuspecting black community where affirmative action _ at least in theory if not always in practice _ has long signified a promise of equal opportunity for work and an education.
“Education was outlawed for 300-some years of slavery,” said state Sen. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat. Tampering with affirmative action “is something that is almost like a Holy War when you’re dealing with education of minority children, especially with black children.”
Meek and Tony Hill, at the time a state representative from Jacksonville, staged the January 2000 sit-in that gave focus to the statewide opposition to the plan.
“It was as if 30 to 40 years of struggle were just handed away at the stroke of a pen. No one … has the prerogative to do that in a democracy,” Meek said.
Even after seeing figures that show minority enrollment has not plummeted, critics cede little ground.
“You can look at it two ways. On one hand you can say One Florida did not create a rollback” in minority enrollment, said state Sen. Daryl Jones, a Miami Democrat who Bush said originally endorsed the plan though Jones later rejected it. “But can you say that One Florida improved the situation? Who is to say that growth wouldn’t have happened regardless because we have more minorities in high school?”
Bush said he regrets not doing more after his November 1999 announcement to explain why he believed that, either because of a successful anti-affirmative action initiative or a court challenge, Florida would eventually have to abandon affirmative action.
But he contends that the reaction to One Florida was bare-knuckle politics _ that Democrats saw an opportunity for a wedge issue to affect the 2000 presidential election and the 2002 gubernatorial race.