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Colleges Line Up To Oppose Senate Overhaul Bill 540

Credit The Florida College System

Florida’s public community and state colleges could become their own system, and move from under the authority of the state board of education. But with that newfound independence would come strict caps on the number of students that can enroll in bachelor’s degree programs at those schools, and make it harder for community and state colleges to establish such programs.

The proposal is the brainchild of Senate President Joe Negron, who, in the past has criticized Florida’s community and state colleges for mission-creep: stepping into roles they weren’t design for.

And despite Governor Rick Scott vetoing one of his priority bills last year. That view has not changed. Negron has seen the proliferation of bachelor’s degree programs along with sometimes confusing name-changes at the schools as a problem—in a system where they’re increasingly competing with the state’s public universities for funding.

This year’s proposal is Senate Bill 540, brought by Republican Sen. Dorothy Hukill who says she wants "to emphasize that the bill is meant to strengthen the community colleges, provide them with advocacy and support and fulfill their primary mission,” -- that mission being to respond to local workforce needs.

To that end, Hukill’s proposal would cap the number of students that can enroll in bachelor’s degrees at the colleges, and lengthen the time it takes for the schools to start the process for creating a new program. But Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer wants to know why the additional time.

“I was surprised that there were separate dates for notice of interest and intent. And to me, the 100 days seems to be plenty of time for other stakeholders to weigh in and consideration to be made," he said.

Hukill says the addition gives universities more time to respond to proposals.

This year, same as last, Florida’s community and state colleges stand in opposition. During a recent interview college system chancellor Madeline Pumariega said the schools are already focused on local workforce needs, and that the system is already doing most of what the bill mandates, like inking transfer agreements with universities.

“For example...our 28 colleges have articulation agreements with each of our universities. Performance incentive programs, our colleges have implemented that and continue to refine that process," she said.

At issue are questions over who is being served and how. The community and state colleges contend their programs don’t compete with universities, that they serve mostly older students, or those returning to school, and that the bachelor’s degrees being offered are ones that respond to local needs.

“The reality is that the student who pursues the baccalaureate program at our colleges, the average age is 31…they’re working as they’re studying…and we have an obligation to our local community and those students to help them find and complete a degree.”

But what is of concern to college presidents this time around are changing metrics—the matrix used by the state to determine how colleges get performance based funds. And Palm Beach State College President Ava Parker is also worried about shifting the college system from under the state board of education.

“We have local boards who understand our differences and it’s important to preserve that," she said."And when we go through legislation it often gets changed annually based on who is in charge, and it would make more sense we think, if it were in the constitution and we could codify it through legislation.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has signaled support for the proposal and its cleared two Senate panels with majority favorable votes.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.
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