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  1. The Education Gradebook

Legislators weigh a question: Should Florida pay to send its foster kids to grad school?

Jasmine Randles likes cats. She thinks it's because her first memory is holding one close as she hid behind the couch while a boyfriend beat her mother to the carpet floor.

It's two years later, at age 4, when Randles becomes a ward of the state. This time, she hides under the covers in a St. Petersburg crack house when a SWAT team breaks down the door and, during the raid, finds a little girl whose parents left her here "to play."

But despite a childhood that could have ruined her future, Randles graduated from the University of South Florida last spring, a feat made much easier by the state's tuition exemption program for foster kids.

Under a policy that has been fine-tuned since the 1980s, Florida offers free tuition and fees to state colleges and universities for students who grew up in the foster system, or were adopted from it. The deal is good until they reach the age of 28. A handful of other states, including Texas and Massachusetts, also have laws providing for the education of children who were wards.

Now Florida is deciding whether to take the benefit to a new level. The Board of Governors, which previously passed rules limiting the tuition waiver, is quietly allowing these students to obtain not just an undergraduate degree on the house, but also pursue a postsecondary education, according to a memo obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. Florida apparently is the first state to allow foster children a tuition-free graduate degree.

Before the decision is made permanent, however, the board is waiting to see what happens with a bill in the Florida Senate. That measure would guarantee graduate tuition for these students and make universities responsible for telling them about the program — something that does not always happen, according to students and experts.

"In Florida's foster system, there is so much failure and injury and death," said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida Children's First, the nonprofit advocacy group for at-risk children that conducted research for the bill. "This is a bright spot, and we as a state should be celebrating those successes."

• • •

D'atra Franklin spent her teen years sleeping on park benches and in homeless shelters, so when she finished her undergraduate degree at Florida Atlantic University, she decided to go for her master's in social work. She wanted to give back.

Several weeks into her first semester, Franklin received an email from FAU telling her she owed the school thousands of dollars because her tuition waiver did not cover graduate studies.

She was floored. "When you're told you can go to school until you're 28, you don't think there's any fine print," said Franklin, who is 26.

About five years ago, the Florida Board of Governors created a regulation that made sense at the time. The Florida law creating tuition exemption for foster children has changed over three decades in recognition that these children face significant challenges.

Notably, it used to cap the program at a younger age, so it wasn't an issue when the Board of Governors specified that the tuition exemption was for undergraduate degrees. But many students coming from the foster system don't immediately start college after high school, Rosenberg said.

In addition to raising the age limit, lawmakers dropped the part about 120 credit hours, acknowledging that most students at Florida universities don't finish on the standard four-semester timeline, whether they were foster kids or not. Changing a major or taking remedial courses can often push students past the 120-hour mark.

But the Board of Governors' regulation limiting the benefit to undergraduate tuition still stood, and was being enforced.

After a few phone calls and a tense week at school, Franklin had an attorney. The law firm Baker & Mackenzie also took on Tien Holmes, a Florida A&M student who exceeded 120 credit hours and was told she needed to take out loans for her final semester.

The firm filed a petition against the Board of Governors in November. But instead of setting a hearing date, the board's general counsel told the attorneys in December that both students would receive their tuition waivers.

"I was able to tell both of these young ladies that they had an early holiday gift," said Elizabeth Yingling, a Dallas-based partner with Baker & Mackenzie.

In a Dec. 14 memo from Tom Jones, vice chancellor of finance and administration, and Vikki Shirley, general counselor, the board advised every state university that it was "in the process of reviewing" the regulation. It instructed the schools to ignore it until "legislative clarification" could be provided.

"Existing statutes are silent on whether the Legislature intended for the exemptions to apply solely to undergraduate degrees, or whether the intent was to be more expansive — including graduate school, medical school, or law degrees, for example," said Brittany Davis Wise, a spokeswoman for the board. "That is why the current regulation is under review, and universities are advised in the meantime not to limit the exemptions to 120 credit hours."

Legislative clarity may be coming quickly. State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota, introduced a bill in January that would strike down the Board of Governors' regulation and make universities take a more active role in the tuition waivers.

Currently in committee, the bill would require university financial aid officers to notify students who may be eligible for the exemption — a crack that some students are slipping through.

Kierra Stover, for example, didn't find out she was eligible for free tuition until her senior year at Florida State University.

Stressed about money, she couldn't sleep one night last summer and was searching the Internet for scholarships when she stumbled onto the program.

She cried, at first. "I was really excited knowing I wouldn't have to take out any more loans," said Stover, 24.

But when she reached out to FSU, she was told she would not receive the $18,000 in tuition and loan re-payments she had already covered herself. The school would provide free tuition only for her remaining semesters, Stover said, telling her the law did not require that she be paid back. Her most recent meeting with the school was Wednesday.

After the Times contacted FSU about Stover's situation on Friday, university spokesman Dennis Schnittker said in an email that her tuition would be refunded.

Stover said she was thrilled.

"I think that you have to consider that our situations are not like other people," she said. "We don't come from the same family backgrounds. We don't have the same support. When they make the decision to make a child the ward of the state, they should also take on the role of becoming the child's parent. I'm now your responsibility. I shouldn't be limited because of something outside my control. Someone from my background making it to this level, making the grade and having the desire to pursue it is so rare. I just don't think it should be that much of a burden for me to want to get an education."

• • •

In this window, where Florida is letting students pursue graduate degrees until lawmakers say otherwise, young people from tough circumstances are taking their chance.

Stover was in a holding pattern, waiting to see whether she could pursue the public relations degree she wanted.

"Nowadays everyone has a bachelor's degree, and I want something to set me apart before I go into that field," she said.

D'atra Franklin is already employed as a social worker and has decided to pursue a public relations graduate degree in lieu of another social work degree.

"I want to brand what I've been through as a person, to inspire young black women who have been abused or neglected, or left home at an early age," she said. "All of that has made me who I am today."

And Jasmine Randles isn't ruling out a graduate degree, either. She has memories of a Christmas Eve spent cleaning up glass, wiping her mother's blood off the floor, and wrapping presents so her little sister and brothers wouldn't wake up to what her stepfather had left behind.

She has a 6-year-old daughter she gave birth to when she was in the 11th grade.

And she has a job as an adoption specialist, helping to connect families with little kids who don't look so different than she did, not so long ago.

With a tuition waiver, Randles, 23, said she would consider getting a degree in counseling, so she could help young girls going through all the things she went through.

The tuition program "encourages and motivates us to do something with our lives. We don't have to continue to be a victim and repeat vicious cycles," she said. "Being in college really opened up my eyes to so much, to what I was ignorant to. It gave me the power and the voice to say I don't have to have this life. It was just the beginning of my life."

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.

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