Florida Senate's state college reform plan 'has got big problems,' Sen. Tom Lee says
A comprehensive plan by Florida Senate leaders to refocus the state college system back to its original purpose of offering two-year degrees and of being a pipeline for the State University System stumbled through its first hearing this week.
The proposal (SB 374) is among a package of bills that are a priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, in his push to improve Florida’s higher education system this year.
Senate leaders have dubbed SB 374 the “College Competitiveness Act,” which Sen. Bill Galvano — a Bradenton Republican and top lieutenant of Negron in executing the higher ed reforms — says will “provide independence and greater opportunity for advocacy and oversight” of Florida’s 28 state colleges, which include Hillsborough Community College and St. Petersburg College.
But some aspects of the bill arguably would have the opposite effect — namely by reining in the colleges’ freedom to add four-year degree programs and, in some cases, requiring legislative action to approve new four-year degrees.
Other reforms in the 254-page proposal include removing the state colleges from the purview of the State Board of Education — which oversees public education in grades K-20 — and, instead, putting the colleges under a new State Board of Community Colleges.
The measure advanced out of the Senate Education Committee on a unanimous vote Monday, with some senators — although vocally disapproving of the plan — resisting a “no” vote mainly as a show of good faith to Senate leadership.
“I just think it’s not ready for prime-time,” said Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican and former Senate president who asked a series of probing questions critical of the proposal. “I’m going to support it today out of deference to my Senate president, Sen. Galvano and Sen. [Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, the bill sponsor], but this bill has got big problems.”
The bill would make baccalaureate degrees a “secondary” mission of the colleges, as opposed to a “primary” mission. And it would create “a formula that would slow additional [four-year] degrees that could come online without legislative approval,” Galvano said in describing the bill.
Galvano, a co-sponsor of the plan, emphasized that no existing four-year degrees state colleges offer would go away. “If you’re doing it now, you’ll continue to be able to do it,” he said.
He also acknowledged the motivator for limiting new four-year degrees is to reduce, what Senate Republican leaders view as, “wasteful duplication” with programs Florida’s 12 public universities offer.
“It became like a competitive state with the university system,” Galvano said.
But senators, like Lee, questioned whether the proposal imposes arbitrary barriers on the state colleges, as well as “micromanaging” by the Legislature, that the State University System isn’t subjected to.
“I feel like much of where we’re trying to go here is very well-intentioned,” Lee said. “No one wants to allow mission-creep to occur … but I think we need to do a better job making the business case for this legislation.”
“I do have a concern that in seeking excellence, we’re thwarting access,” agreed Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Parkland.
As well, the Council of Presidents for the state colleges spoke against the reforms, saying two-year associate degrees remain their main focus and that four-year baccalaureate degrees represent a small percentage of their work.
“The reality is that most of our students must work and balance life priorities while they study. The baccalaureate programs have provided a pathway for increased earnings for our students,” Pensacola State College President Ed Meadows said, on the council’s behalf.
Galvano seemed open to amending the proposal as it moves forward. It faces vetting by two other committees before it could reach the Senate floor. There is not yet a House companion.
“Let’s take a look at what we said the intent of the system was when it was created ... and make sure we’re still fulfilling, first and foremost, those priorities,” Galvano said.