Joe Henderson: The people have spoken (loudly) and Dennis Baxley should listen
The attempt by state Sen. Dennis Baxley to change requirements for the Bright Futures program elicted harsh reactions from parents and students. --COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

Parents and students don't want Baxley's Bright Futures 'reform.'

I keep wondering why Sen. Dennis Baxley would take on what basically was a political suicide mission. He embarked on a ham-handed attempt to, ahem, “reform” the wildly popular and effective Bright Futures scholarship program.

SB 86 had no chance.

Initially, it awarded full tuition to students whose college major had a better chance of leading to employment. People across the state all but threatened to storm the state Capitol with pitchforks and flaming torches.

More than 120,000 people signed an online petition against the bill. Baxley admitted to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education that he received more than 2,000 messages. I can guess the tone of most of those.

He said the program, is “very popular” and admitted the negative feedback was effective. So, Baxley backed off – sort of. His refiled bill eliminates the “this better lead to a job” requirement. However, it still proposes to allow the Legislature to use the budget process to set the scholarship amount instead of tying it to the cost of tuition and fees.

That notion better be D.O.A. as well, at least if any Republican lawmaker hopes for reelection. Parents and students for decades have factored Bright Futures into their plan to pay for college. Lawmakers mess with it now at their grave political risk.

Besides, Gov. Ron DeSantis could always veto a bill like this if it gets to his desk, which I doubt it will in its current form or anything close to that. DeSantis, a fan of Bright Futures, is in full campaign mode for 2022 (and maybe 2024).

So, why take this on at all?

Perhaps this is a trial balloon so Republican leadership could see what public reaction would be. If so, they got their answer: the balloon turned into the Hindenburg, and thousands of skittish parents and students are watching closely to see what happens next.

Besides, who named Baxley the arbiter of what the best college path is for students? College is a time of discovery, where students learn, evolve, and change their minds — sometimes, a lot.

Remember in 2006 when Gov. Jeb Bush wanted to require incoming high school freshmen to declare a major? Because yeah, why expose students to useless things like poetry and philosophy which might help shape their minds? Republicans always seem in such a hurry to rush that process.

There also is another guiding GOP principle that could be in play here.

In the 1800s, an Ohio U.S. Senator named Mark Hanna famously remarked, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

We know the budget havoc caused by the pandemic, so maybe this was an attempt to redirect some money.

Or it’s possible Baxley just produced a lame bill guaranteed to set people’s hair on fire throughout the state.

Either way, the people have spoken.

I’d recommend lawmakers listen to what they have to say.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


  • David Carrillo

    March 24, 2021 at 10:49 pm

    Baxley is also sponsoring a “grandparent tuition waiver bill” (SB 1728). Appears to be an attempt of a straight up reduction of Bright Futures for our children while shifting those saving to cover out-of-state grandchildren tuition shortfall. Not to mention the increased competition of a huge influx of out-of-state students would cause for our kids.

    • Michelle rhein

      March 24, 2021 at 11:14 pm

      Yes. This crap bill should also be getting some attention. This will push many Floridians right out of getting into the top colleges in Florida. Do you know how hard it is to get into Florida and Florida state these days? Then to add …I don’t know 100,000 out of state kids with vouchers I. Their hands. Why wouldn’t they want to come to sunny Florida ? It will be at the expense of our own.

  • Marie Maier

    March 25, 2021 at 9:16 am

    Great article. I agree with your assessment. Like another parent said, this is a red herring. Look this way, while we pass the SB178 and the voucher program on the side. After all we listened to you (parents and students) and made some compromises on SB86! Just let us be “guardians” of the funds, make determinations and use these to fund our real goals. Meaning SB178 and such. Florida has the highest amounts of retirees and that means many grandchildren. A lot like the ones in “The Villages” will cut some big donor checks… But tell me again, Senator Baxley. How does this benefit Florida families and the students that are in the state universities and those that will apply in the future? The answer? It doesn’t. Just politics. I like your article and would love this subject to get National Media attention. An expose in MSN or CNN or any mentioned on John Oliver, Steven Colbert , Trevor Noah and whomever! Any ideas on how to get this out there? I think they are trying to move it quickly so very time sensitive. And us parents and students need to write, and call and sign petitions all over again! Thank you for your article.

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