The Florida Legislature has taken a significant step toward recognizing this state's diversity as one of its strengths and that it is smart public policy as well as smart politics to invest in the future. Legislation sent to Gov. Rick Scott on Friday that allows undocumented immigrants who graduate from Florida high schools to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities initially could benefit more than 1,300 students. The return will be much broader, for it signals Florida is a compassionate state that wants to continue to provide opportunities for its brightest young people, regardless of where they were born and how they got here.
This has been a yearslong effort to level the playing field for undocumented immigrants who excelled in Florida high schools but found out-of-state tuition rates made it difficult to continue their education. Much of the credit for persuading their colleagues to recognize the benefits of offering in-state tuition to these young people goes to two Tampa Bay Republicans: House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel and Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater. Without their leadership, the issue easily could have died again. Scott, who will sign the legislation into law, also provided a helping hand in the final days of the legislative session.
Along the way, there still were the unenlightened lawmakers who argued that in-state tuition should be paid only by high school students who are American citizens. What they failed to appreciate is that these undocumented students were brought to Florida as young children by their parents or other relatives and had no choice. Taxpayers already have invested heavily in their public education, and these students already are contributing to their high schools and to their broader communities. Providing them with the same opportunity as their classmates to attend a state college or university will prepare those students to make even more significant contributions to the state's economy and civic life.
Several Tampa Bay legislators who voted against the bill, HB 851, will find themselves on the wrong side of history: Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Tom Lee of Brandon, and Republican Reps. Larry Ahern of Seminole, Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes, Jamie Grant of Tampa and Jimmie Smith of Inverness.
For other Republicans, there is a political calculus to embracing this public policy. This is an election year, and Republicans have been losing support from Hispanic voters who are upset with Scott's botched attempt to purge the voter rolls and other issues. Allowing undocumented high school students to pay in-state tuition could start to repair some of that political damage.
Regardless of the various motivations, this is a positive step for the state and most of Tampa Bay's legislators from both political parties agreed. Florida will become the 20th state to allow in-state tuition for undocumented students who were brought to the country illegally. The state and all of its residents will be better for it.