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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Plan To Revamp Florida's Bright Futures Program Is Put On Hold

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WUFT
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Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, is sponsoring a bill that would cut state-backed Bright Futures scholarships for students in degree programs that don’t “lead directly to employment."

Bill sponsor Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, says he is he is “absolutely” confident it will be back during the legislative session.

A controversial Senate proposal that would cut state-backed Bright Futures scholarships for students in degree programs that don’t “lead directly to employment” has been put on hold and is expected to undergo changes.

Sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the bill (SB 86) would require the State Board of Education and the state university system’s Board of Governors to create lists of degree programs “that they determine lead directly to employment.” The two governing boards oversee higher education in the state.

Under the bill, if students at state colleges and universities enroll in degree programs that are not on lists of “approved” programs, they would not be eligible for Bright Futures scholarships. Students who have not chosen degree programs would be eligible to have 60 hours of coursework covered by the scholarship.

The 60 hours would typically be the amount needed to complete an associate of arts degree, but about half of what’s required for a four-year degree.

The Senate Education Committee was scheduled to take up the bill Tuesday, but consideration was postponed Monday evening. Tabling a bill before it gets heard by its first committee can sometimes spell trouble, but Baxley said that’s not the case with the higher-education bill and he is “absolutely” confident it will be back during the legislative session.

“We’re getting a lot of different inputs, and some of it looks interesting. I thought we should hit the brakes and check through some of this. There might be some things that we could make this a lot more understandable and appreciated by the folks affected,” Baxley told reporters Tuesday.

At least some of that input is coming from a group of prospective college students who are opposing the bill under the moniker Save Bright Futures. The primarily high school students have created a website, SaveBrightFutures.org, and are backing a petition that has garnered more than 75,000 signatures. The petition is titled “Keep Bright Futures scholarships accessible, regardless of college major.”

“Regardless of what program they’re in, everyone deserves a fair chance for education, and to pursue their passions rather than worrying about what figure is on their paycheck. People deserve to go after what they want to do,” Kaylee Duong, an Orlando high-school senior who is part of the group, told The News Service of Florida in an interview Monday.

Thomas Truong, who is a junior in high school, is listed as a project leader for the group.

“The list in particular is selected by the Board of Governors and the State Board of Education, which both of those are selected by the governor. Doing a little bit of research, those groups are mostly lawyers, doctors,” Truong, also of Orlando, said. “We want to stress that every education that you can get from higher education is important. There should be no education that isn't funded by Bright Futures, especially if you already earned it.”

The proposal calls for the state boards to “consider national, state, and regional industry demand for certificateholders and graduates of such degree programs” when crafting lists of eligible degrees.

Another part of the bill raising concerns would change the current system of providing aid in a tiered structure, at either 100 percent or 75 percent of tuition and fees. Baxley’s proposal would tie the amount of students’ Bright Futures scholarships to the amount appropriated in the state budget.

“There’s so much up in the air about how much students are receiving per scholarship. So, even if you are approved, even if you work hard to get the scholarship … they don’t guarantee a certain percentage of your tuition,” Duong said.

Baxley said he is “not ready to be specific” about what changes are being considered for the measure, but he described his vision for what he wants to accomplish.

“Some of it is adjusting some of the makeup of these pathways. I think everybody will be trying to make that list with their programs, and they can add some things,” Baxley said Tuesday. “I use the illustration that ... you may love art, and you may just want to study art. But, if we could arrange that program so you picked up a few courses that also qualified you to teach art, now you have a career path.”

Asked who has given him feedback on the bill, Baxley said it hasn’t just been parents or students in certain degree programs.

“I think it’s actually all the people that like the way it serves them now and are nervous about changes. And somehow, it all got started that we’re trying to cut the program. That’s a separate issue, I’m not advocating that. I’m advocating that we shape this issue so that we know it’s meeting workplace needs and helping families gain their independence,” Baxley said.

The proposal garnered immediate support from Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, when it was filed Feb. 23. A Senate news release billed the measure as an effort to “maximize value for the student and for Florida taxpayers through a focus on targeted programs that directly lead to employment.”

“All too often the debate surrounding higher education focuses on the cost to the student, in terms of tuition and fees, but never the cost to the taxpayer or the actual value to the student. The reality is a degree does not guarantee a job. This legislation rebalances state financial aid programs to cover the cost of tuition and fees for general education requirements and then for targeted programs that we know will lead to jobs in our communities,” Simpson said in the prepared statement.

Baxley said he is not attempting to denigrate any fields of study with his bill.

“There’s no useless degrees. But there should be a way to wire hire-ability into this, because people need to make a living,” Baxley said.

First elected to the House in 2000, Baxley told reporters Tuesday that he’s no stranger to criticism of legislation he endorses.

“Incoming fire proves you’re engaged. They don’t fire at you if you’re not doing anything. But if you’re messing with things that matter, and you’re trying to make them better, somebody’s not going to like it. Because they settle in very quickly,” Baxley said.

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