First, it was "Bright Futures." Next, it could be "Sunshine."
State Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County Democrat, is pushing to establish a new taxpayer-funded grant that would help low-income Floridians earn certificates and associate's degrees.
The so-called "Sunshine Scholarship" would pay students' remaining tuition balance at trade schools and community colleges after they utilize other federal and state financial aid.
However, if the Republican-led Legislature approves House Bill 181, it's likely the scholarship would benefit far fewer students than Jones had initially hoped.
The proposal — which Jones calls “a work in progress" — was first designed to make community college free to a wide swath of students, including those with middle-class incomes. But, already, the bill has been scaled down significantly.
Jones — a former public school teacher who represents West Park and whose father is mayor of that city — first pitched a scholarship for students whose annual household income was $125,000 or less. Further, the awards would have supported their pursuit of associate’s or bachelor’s degrees at Florida College System institutions.
But the House’s post-secondary education subcommittee replaced the bill with a new version before passing it unanimously on Dec. 6. The new language offers the financial aid to students with a much lower income threshold of $50,000 or less, given that the median annual household income in Florida was $48,900 in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And as now written, the award would cover only the workforce training programs and two-year degrees, not four-year programs.
Jones said House leadership directed changes to the bill, lowering the eligibility threshold so the scholarships wouldn't cost the state as much. The annual budgeting process is a fierce competition for resources, and the priorities of legislative leaders take precedent, as do the desires of the governor, to a lesser extent.
In an analysis, legislative staff did not assign a specific dollar amount to how much Jones’ bill would cost because it’s difficult to predict how many students would receive it. Also, since the scholarship is designed to bridge the gap left by other financial aid programs, the amount of each award would vary based on an individual student’s eligibility for other federal and state grants.
It must clear two other House committees — where it's likely to be amended further — before it could be considered on the House floor early this year. There are two similar bills in the Senate, both filed by South Florida Democrats — Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, of Miami Gardens; and Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, of Miami, who is running for Congress. Jones said he and the senators plan to reconcile the differences in their bills and eventually advance identical versions.
Jones said his hope is to pass the more limited scholarship during this legislative session and expand eligibility later.
WLRN talked with Jones about the details of his proposal. Here’s an excerpt of the conversation:
WLRN: What does your bill do?
JONES: So students can go to a two-year college or community college, and after they've applied for Pell grants, their FAFSA and any other educational assistance, the state will come in and pay the gap — or the last dollar. … The benefit to the state of Florida is, if we pay for the students to go to a college, the only thing they have to pay back to us is their time. So the amount of time that they've used the scholarship they pay us back by working in the state for the amount of time that they received it. If they leave, they have to pay the loan back with interest.
So your bill would cover full tuition and fees for students in vocational programs or enrolled in community colleges. Why not include public universities as well?
You know, that's a good question. Looking at the budget year — according to the governor's budget, and the speaker and the president’s budget, they are trying to keep the fiscal down on it.
And when you say, “keep the fiscal down,” you mean, make it so it's not prohibitively expensive for the state?
That's correct. The first thing that I'm going to do is amend my bill in the next committee stop to get a study done in the first two years so we can look at how many students use the scholarship [and] ... the demographic of the students that use it. From there, let’s expand it.
So as you mentioned, the scholarship is what’s called a “last dollar” scholarship. That means Bright Futures, federal Pell Grants and other financial aid would be applied first. So if a student has the lower level of Bright Futures, which, right now, doesn't cover full tuition and fees, that scholarship would make up the difference.
Senate President Joe Negron’s major priority has been to restore the top level of Bright Futures to full tuition and fees. But some lawmakers have said that could leave out many low-income students. Did that factor into your thinking here?
It did. And I think that's a lot of people’s concern. And surprisingly, I was so scared when I started this bill because of what the Senate president was doing. I thought we were going to end up clashing. But everyone seems to have jumped on board with the Sunshine Scholarship because they understand the need that we have within the state of Florida to retain good talent.
But Florida has a responsibility in that we need to start figuring out ways to make it affordable to live here. While we are pumping individuals into the workforce, we need to do things like what they're doing in Broward with the teachers and look at some affordable housing options and some ways where people can survive here.
So the bill includes a threshold — a household income threshold — of $50,000. Why that amount?
We do understand that there are households who have a higher income, but they are still living in poverty. I would love for the state of Florida to say, “Hey, if you're going to a two-year college, everybody qualifies.” But I'm hoping we can get that study done in the first two years.
What inspired you to propose this bill?
As an educator, as someone who was raised in a household of educators, my parents — that was the mantra of our household: education. And a lot of individuals, they want to break the generational poverty in their households, but they can't afford it. Even if I go to college, or I desire to go to college, and I receive some type of aid, there's always a gap that hinders individuals from going. I don't care if it’s $300. Individuals can't pay it because that $300 is what takes care of their family.
So the state of Florida — if we can really show that we really care and we are really the Sunshine State, let’s shine a tad bit of light and help on these individuals to give them a helping hand, a hand up.