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FAFSA bill among flurry of last minute education legislation in Florida

Friday is the filing deadline.

Florida’s shortage of teachers and guidance counselors has prompted one prominent Tampa lawmaker to make a proposal she wishes weren’t necessary.

Sen. Janet Cruz, a Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, has filed legislation (SB 1550) that would require all high school students, beginning with the Class of 2025, to file a completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form in order to get their standard diploma.

The bill is identical to one filed by Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, in the House.

It’s one of several education bills flying into the two chambers as lawmakers seek to beat today’s filing deadline for the 2020 session, which begins Tuesday.

Cruz said her measure has become necessary in light of current events. Too many stories have emerged about Floridians who take loans they can’t repay in order to attend unaccredited, for-profit colleges that prey upon peoples’ lack of financial savvy, she said.

The state’s lack of high school guidance counselors, paired with schools’ increasing reliance on those counselors they have to oversee testing, has made the issue worse, Cruz suggested.

“If you are a person who comes from a family like mine, where you have parents who never went to college and don’t know what’s available to you — I worry about those students,” Cruz said. “The idea is to ensure students at least try to find some money that is available to them other than these loans.”

Why make it a requirement? “I think if we just say, ‘Hey, do this,’ it won’t happen,” she explained.

The chances for this bill, as well as most others, remains slim in the Florida Legislature. Lawmakers regularly file thousands of bills for the two-month session, with only about 10 percent making their way to the governor’s desk.

Even so, the lawmakers continue to propose ideas in the hope that maybe someday, some of them will get through.

Among some of the other recently filed education bills are:

SB 1660, by Sen. Perry Thurston, on required instruction. It would have the state ensure that all district, private and charter schools properly implement lessons on the Holocaust and African-American history. This issue grabbed the spotlight after a Palm Beach County principal questioned whether the Holocaust occurred and whether his school needed to provide lessons about it. Rep. Randy Fine and Sen. Lauren Book also filed related legislation that would have the state consult with the Florida Holocaust Museum in creating curriculum on the topic. (HB 1213 / SB 1628)

HB 1059 / SB 1634, by Rep. Erin Grall and Sen. Kelli Stargel, on parental rights. The measure, which did not gain traction in 2019, would create a new section of Florida statute spelling out parents’ rights when it comes to their children’s health care and education. It has faced challenges from advocates of issues such as LGBTQ rights and abortion rights, who have raised concerns that children’s rights to privacy might be imperiled.

SB 1688, by Sen. Gayle Harrell, on early education. Similar to HB 1013 by Grall, the bill would move preschool and prekindergarten programs into a new separate division in the Department of Education. It currently is part of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice. The bill also would establish more regular student assessments on prekindergarten students, to determine their readiness for kindergarten. The issue gained attention when Gov. Ron DeSantis observed that large percentages of youngsters were arriving in their elementary schools unprepared.

SB 1578, by Sen. Travis Hutson, on charter schools. Like HB 953 by Rep. Stan McLain, this measure would permit colleges and universities to sponsor charter schools — something currently only school districts may do. The House approved a similar proposal in 2019, but it did not move in the Senate.

The education committees of both chambers meet on Monday to begin sifting through some of the dozens of measures assigned for their consideration. Stay tuned to see which ones, if any, break out amid the ongoing debate over teacher pay and become law.

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