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Concessions made to Bright Futures bill ahead of hearing

The bill’s sponsor has proposed removing some of the most controversial provisions, such as reducing scholarship amounts based on college major.
A bill that would alter the Bright Futures scholarship program is again poised to see changes as the bill's sponsor makes some concessions.
A bill that would alter the Bright Futures scholarship program is again poised to see changes as the bill's sponsor makes some concessions.
Published Mar. 22, 2021|Updated Mar. 22, 2021

A bill that would reduce students’ Bright Futures scholarships based on their majors faces yet another major overhaul as it heads to its next state Senate committee stop on Tuesday.

The proposed reductions that infuriated students, parents and educators have been removed from the latest revision, published early Monday.

“We’re not trying to take anything away from anybody,” said bill sponsor Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “We’re going to do some concessionary things for them. We know they’re unhappy.”

The version that passed the Senate Education Committee a week ago would create a list of majors that “do not lead directly to employment,” and potentially cut the scholarship amounts for students whose programs appear on the list.

The substitute would continue to require the creation of that list. But it would no longer reduce scholarship amounts for students choosing majors on it. Instead, the list would mostly serve as an advisory.

The original bill also aimed to cut scholarships based on how many college credits students earn through dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and related programs.

That section also was removed in the version slated to be considered by the Senate Education Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday morning.

Senate Education Committee vice chair Shev Jones, D-West Park, contended last week that the original proposed scholarship reductions would put “further barriers in place” for minority students, particularly Black students, who never have comprised more than 7 percent of Bright Futures recipients.

Related: Senate GOP advances Bright Futures redesign

Another proposed change in the bill would expand scholarship opportunities for students in under-represented groups. The proposed wording says students who receive recognition from College Board National Recognition program for under-represented communities — not just the National Hispanic Recognition Program — would be eligible for awards.

Baxley said he had come to understand that some students and families plan years in advance to prepare for their college careers, and he did not want to stand in their way.

Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle, a vocal critic of the initial bill, on Monday praised the senator and staff for taking into account many of the concerns that arose during the first hearing.

In his blog, Cottle frequently writes about Florida’s poor record in offering advanced math and science courses to high school students, and how that hinders them in pursuing degrees such as engineering. The bill as originally written “would have been another step backward,” by taking away an incentive to complete AP and other needed courses in high school, he said.

“It’s really difficult for policymakers at the state level to understand all the ins and outs of what it takes to educate a STEM major,” said Cottle, referencing a common acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. “I’m quite happy they were willing to concede that.”

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Baxley wants to keep some provisions unchanged, including one that would allow lawmakers to set scholarship amounts through the budgeting process, rather than keeping them tied to tuition and fees. The Legislature only recently returned to the “full” funding of the scholarship in 2018, after six years of tying it to the state budget because of the recession.

At the time, senators called it a return to the promises made to students.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last week said he wants the Legislature to continue fully funding the Bright Futures scholarship program.

“I think Bright Futures is something that Florida families have relied upon,” DeSantis told reporters. “It’s something that I support. I fully funded it in my budget, and we hope the Legislature follows suit with that as well.”

The governor’s comment, paired with a statement from House leaders that they’re not considering a Bright Futures bill, offer strong signals that the measure might not be headed for ultimate approval.

But Baxley suggested that, passage or not, an important conversation has begun about the value of the degrees at Florida’s colleges and universities. He sent a letter to colleagues Monday morning explaining his viewpoint.

Higher education is an investment, he said, and should come with some career planning and an end goal of a job.

“We have awakened a giant,” Baxley wrote. “We have to reconnect the education and economic model and we have begun that process.”

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