Despite dozens of students speaking in protest, the Senate Education Committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would fundamentally change the Bright Futures Scholarship Program.
Sponsored by Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, the bill (SB 86) seeks to limit Bright Futures scholarships to degrees with higher job prospects.
“If all you do is Tik Tok and Facebook, you can’t work in a modern office today,” Baxley said.
The committee OK’d the measure with a 5-4 vote after hearing oppositional testimony from roughly 70 speakers including student government presidents.
All but one speaker spoke against the bill.
“Please know, with five children and eight grandchildren, nobody loves kids more than I do,” Baxley said in his closing, offering consolation to critics. “Nobody wants them to succeed more than I do.”
Baxley’s proposal moves forward after lawmakers rewrote the bill under increasing pressure, particularly from students.
Originally, the legislation called on the Board of Governors to create a list of scholarship-approved degree programs.
Now, the Board of Governors (BOG) would create an annual list of ineligible degree programs. If students wish to earn more than 60 credit hours under the scholarship, they would need to select a major not identified by the BOG.
When asked by Democratic Sen. Shevron Jones, Baxley refused to give an example of what might qualify as an ineligible program.
“I won’t do that because, all of a sudden, that becomes the story,” Baxley said.
The revised bill also calls on the BOG to publish an online dashboard.
The dashboard would detail the median student loan debt, monthly loan payments, and debt-to-income ratio by academic discipline.
“We’re trying to push the world of the economy, the real world, and the educational world closer together,” Baxley explained.
While the amendment ushered notable changes, much of Baxley’s original proposal remains.
Notably, the bill still includes a provision that would tie tuition payments to the state budget.
That provision, which would remove the 75% or 100% tuition guarantee, is a sticking point for some students.
“Reconsider the impact that this bill will have on the 400,000 voting-age students I’m here representing,” said Ally Schneider, who doubles as chair of the Florida Student Association and Student Government President at the University of North Florida.
Democrats proposed several amendments trying to reshape the legislation. None, however, were adopted.
Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky filed an amendment that would allow students to appeal against degree programs featured on the list.
Baxley pushed against the amendment.
Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston’s amendment sought to remove the degree program list.
“This removes the primary intent of the bill which is to help connect students with career path opportunities and ensure that the state is supporting programs that are beneficial to the student, state and the environment of the economy,” Baxley countered.
Despite a staff analysis noting a net positive to the state budget by 2023 if signed into law, Baxley contended the proposal is not a cost-saving measure.
“I don’t know if we’ll save a dime,” he said.
Alternatively, he pointed to other provisions within the bill that aim to help students.
The proposal would create the Florida Endeavor Scholarship.
That scholarship would cover tuition and fees for students without a high school diploma who enroll in a certificate or high school equivalency program.
Baxley’s proposal would also create a Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program.
The program would cover tuition, fees and offer a book stipend to Pell Grant-eligible students in a certificate or associate degree program who still owe after all financial aid is exhausted.
“We’re not eliminating Bright Futures, it’s transforming into new pathways and some of that is going to include people who haven’t had a chance,” he said.
While the bill advanced on a party-line vote, Republican members, including Sen. Manny Diaz, acknowledged the bill needs work.
Diaz volunteered to help Baxley as the bill progresses.
“Obviously, we’ve heard that there are continued concerns with some of the things in this bill and I think as this process works through — as it always does — it’s intended to make the bill better before it gets to the floor.”
Jones, meanwhile, tipped his hat to the new programs, but voted down on the bill as a whole.
Jones said the bill would disproportionately impact minority communities.
He added that only 6% of Black students qualified for Bright Futures in 2019 and 2020, accounting for 6,862 of 111,973 scholarship recipients.
“It’s not the fact that African Americans don’t know, or they don’t apply, it’s the fact that they don’t qualify for Bright Futures,” Jones said. “So, putting more barriers in place creates a huge situation.”
Meanwhile, Polsky argued the proposal goes against other Republican principles, such as school choice and individualism.
She and other Democratic lawmakers took issue when Baxley described the scholarship as an “entitlement.”
“We talk a lot about capitalism and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and we don’t like socialism and we don’t like being told what to do, we don’t like big government,” Polsky said. “Well, all of those things are at risk in this bill.”
Baxley’s proposal moves next to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and Senate Appropriations Committee.
If signed into law, the proposal would impact the 2022-23 academic year.