Funding issues persist over Bright Futures scholarships

TALLAHASSEE – One of the most publicized education bills of this legislative session was largely overturned on Tuesday by the collective fury of a group of students trying to “save” the popular Bright Futures College scholarship program from the state.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, would have reduced Bright Futures scholarships based on specific majors that “don’t lead directly to employment.” It would also have reduced scholarships based on the number of college credits students earned through advanced placement and other related programs.

But students, outraged by the proposed cuts, concocted a coordinated effort to oppose Senate Bill 86. They used social media and organized a popular lobbying effort to increase pressure on Baxley and other lawmakers to drop the idea. Their efforts, for the most part, paid off on Tuesday.

At Baxley’s request, the Senate Education Appropriations subcommittee revised the bill and removed the proposed scholarship cuts. In an interview, Baxley said the student opposition had “absolutely” influenced the changes in the bill.

“Believe it or not, it still means a lot to us,” said the Ocala Republican.

Despite the changes, students remain concerned that the bill still allows lawmakers to set scholarship amounts as part of the budget process, rather than keeping them tied to tuition and fees.

“It wouldn’t guarantee how much money we get,” said Grant Stacey, a high school student from Port Charlotte who was part of the student-led group “Save Bright Futures”.

Bright Futures scholarships currently cover 75% or 100% of student tuition fees, depending on merit and high academic achievement. Stacey said the group plans to continue emailing lawmakers to make sure they don’t change that policy.

Related: Out-of-State Students with Florida Grandparents May Receive In-State Tuition

Baxley, however, said the Legislature should have spending flexibility over scholarship amounts to meet “the realities of the current economic environment.”

“We cannot promise eternal promises,” Baxley told Senators. “We cannot tie future legislatures to this commitment… some of them will have great realities and others will have difficult realities.”

Amid a global pandemic, lawmakers have warned of budget cuts. Members of the House and Senate plan to unveil their separate budget plans later this week, marking the official start of legislative budget negotiations.

Baxley maintains that he has “no intention of trying to reduce” the scholarship amounts. But it remains to be seen if Bright Futures will hit the cutting board.

“It’s a live process and I don’t have a sense of that direction,” Baxley told The Times / Herald, when asked about the potential cuts.

Scratch the lottery money

The Florida Bright Futures Scholarships have been funded by the Florida Lottery since their inception in 1997.

The Florida Lottery was created on the promise that it would go towards education, at all levels. There was $ 2.2 billion available in the Education Improvement Trust Fund this fiscal year, of which $ 1.9 billion came from the Florida Lottery. Bright Futures received $ 651.8 million in 2020-2021.

“There are a lot of things in the lottery to fund this [Bright Futures] and more, ”said Senator Tina Polksy, D-Boca Raton.

Baxley agreed that the lottery money was going towards education, although he said it was a “very wide space”.

“We have made the conscious decision to prioritize our scholarship program,” he said. “But the Constitution says it’s for education.”

Senator Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who voted in favor of the bill, said the legislature should have the flexibility to fund the program during the budget process. Senator Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, supported Diaz’s point, and noted that nothing in Baxley’s bill “shows that we are cutting funding to Bright Futures”.

Senate Democrats, however, were skeptical of the Republicans’ intentions.

Senator Janet Cruz, for example, was concerned that the bill on the table would allow the Republican-dominated legislature to cut scholarship amounts, even though the bill did not explicitly say so.

The Tampa Democrat pushed for changes to the bill to ensure Bright Futures scholarships were tied to tuition and fees. But the Republican majority refused it.

Does he have wings?

Governor Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, has said he wants the Legislature to fully fund scholarships for the next fiscal year.

“I think Bright Futures is something that families in Florida have relied on,” he told reporters last week. “It’s something that I support. I fully funded it in my budget, and we hope the Legislature will follow suit as well. “

The governor’s comment, coupled with a statement from House leaders that they are not considering a Bright Futures bill, offers strong signals that the measure may not be ultimately approved.

But Baxley has suggested that whether or not the bill passes, his bill started a conversation about the value of degrees at Florida colleges and universities.

His bill, for example, would require the Board of Governors to publish an online dashboard with data on graduates from various fields of study, including median post-graduation salaries and loan debts. students.

In a letter to his colleagues in the Senate on Monday morning, he explained that his bill aimed to view higher education as an investment. He added that students should plan ahead and have a job as their end goal.

“We have awakened a giant,” Baxley wrote. “We need to reconnect the educational and economic model and we have started this process.

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Cover of the Legislative Assembly in Tampa Bay Times Florida

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