New plan preserving Bright Futures passes despite suspicions from Democrats and students
Dennis Baxley. Image via Colin Hackley.

Amendments soften the bill, but Democrats fear problems will return.

A Senate panel gave its approval to a reworked plan to push students toward “meaningful careers,” but not without concerns from students and Democrats that the original plan could return.

Sen. Dennis Baxley on Monday announced plans to scrap large portions of his controversial proposal (SB 86) to tie higher education scholarships to job prospects. The Senate Education Appropriations Committee gave its approval to those changes on Tuesday.

The Ocala Republican’s proposal now won’t reduce Bright Futures and Benacquisto Scholarship awards for students seeking degrees or certificates flagged as those that lead to fewer job opportunities. Instead, it would put a hold on freshmen’s registrations during the year. To get that hold lifted, students would have to get career readiness training and affirm they learned about the financials and prospects of their career after graduating.

“Right now, we have a number that are being identified as unhirable at that juncture, and that’s why we’ve been so ambitious to try to bring these two worlds, the economy and the education model, closer together and to make sure we’re preparing people for that bright future that we really would like for them to see,” Baxley told the panel.

Tampa Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz said “parents were losing their minds” over the proposal. She asked Baxley to promise not to revive the Bright Futures scaling provision during the state’s budget process, subverting public input during the committee process.

He gave a definitive “yes” to that promise, but wouldn’t extend that to future Legislatures, which could make changes based on the economy and policy decisions.

“I’m just being real,” Baxley said. “I’m being truthful with people instead of a false promise that I really don’t know what the future holds and I need to be honest about that.”

The bill still calls for a published list of degrees and certificates that lead to fewer job prospects. Boca Raton Democratic Rep. Tina Polsky shared parents’ concerns that it could be applied to a similar measure in the future.

“As a result, that list is out there. The work and expense has been done by the Board of Governors or universities to put that list together, and that might be an opportunity in the future to say, ‘oh, well, we’ve got this great list. Let’s tie it to Bright Futures,'” Polsky said.

Sam McLoughlin, on behalf of Florida State University College Democrats, said students are well-aware of their future job prospects when they choose a degree. She called it “suspicious” that the list of degrees would remain.

“I understand the need to inform students of the post-grad realities of their degrees, but if this is the intended function of the degree list, then why did more than half of this committee just vote down Senator Polsky’s amendment?

About 70 speakers testified on the bill in its first hearing, when the Senate Education Committee last week voted 5-4, along party lines, to advance the proposal after postponing it the week before when senators received strong public opposition.

Republicans on that committee acknowledged the bill needed work. Speaking at a press conference in Naples on Wednesday, DeSantis signaled his stance on the measure prior to its latest amendment.

“I think Bright Futures is something that Florida families have relied upon,” he said. “It’s something that I support. I fully funded it in my budget, and we hope the Legislature follows suit on that as well.”

Baxley contends the proposal was not a cost-saving measure. However, a committee staff analysis notes spending would decrease if the bill took effect as written before the latest amendment.

In a letter sent to colleagues, the Ocala Republican’s strike-all amendment removes several parts of the bill that drew outcry from opposition, including students.

“We have awakened a giant,” Baxley wrote in his letter to colleagues. “We have to reconnect the education and economic model and we have begun that process.”

The latest amendment also removes the plan to reduce Bright Futures credits based on the number of acceleration credits obtained.

Currently, there is no House companion measure to Baxley’s bill. The bill next heads to the Appropriations Committee.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


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