Weatherford: A chance for education for all Florida's children

Published Jan. 24, 2014

Our country is in the midst of an intense debate on how to deal with immigration reform. As a state, we have no role in determining the legal status of immigrants. The lack of action on the part of the federal government has led to confusion and frustration over the millions of people who are living in our country today without proper documentation.

Caught in the middle of this protracted and ongoing struggle are children who, through no decision or fault of their own, are living among us. By law, they attend our public schools. They play football on our high school teams. They are some of our valedictorians, our cheerleaders and our children's closest friends. I have met many of these students over the years thanks to a dedicated community leader named Margarita Romo, who has devoted her life to helping migrant workers. Like my ancestors and probably yours, these children's families came to America pursuing a better life. Every time I speak with these students, their words quicken and their eyes grow bright when they speak about their desire to attend college.

Sadly, today their dreams of a higher education may be beyond reach. You see, these are the children of illegal immigrants. Although they grow up as Floridians, because of their parents' immigration status they cannot qualify to pay in-state tuition. Out-of-state tuition can cost four times as much and is so costly it effectively bars many bright students from attending a Florida college or university.

Can Florida afford to lose their talents and potential?

My answer is an emphatic, "No."

Nothing is more important to securing Florida's economic future in the 21st century than providing a college education for our children. Government has been far too slow to recognize that we're in the early stages of a technological revolution that will reshuffle our workforce over the next decades. You can see it now. Massive computing power and robotics have displaced typists and factory workers. As these technologies become even more sophisticated they'll displace workers who are now safely situated higher in the vocational food chain. An Oxford University study suggests that machines will assume almost half of today's jobs within the next two decades.

This revolution offers prosperity to those who have the intellectual skills to harness its power, and it offers downward mobility to those who can't keep pace. Florida must take the better path, and we'll need the talents of all of Florida's students who are equipped with the best education we can provide. As a policymaker, it's my job to help foster upward mobility through higher education by making a university degree more accessible for all of Florida's children.

While there's a compelling practical imperative for creating a more educated workforce, there's also a moral dimension that can't be ignored. It's a fundamental element of our American character that we don't punish children for mistakes made by their parents. Just as you can't inherit the debts of your parents, it's wrong for children to be forced to bear the burden of their parents' undocumented status. If an undocumented worker's child has been raised in Florida and graduates from high school here, that child should be offered access to higher education under the same terms we reserve their peers with parents who are legal residents.

In 2014, Florida can be among the leaders on this issue and provide a welcome contrast to the dysfunction that currently grips Washington. If Washington had a rational approach to immigration, Florida wouldn't be faced with this dilemma. But we should not ignore problems in our own backyard caused by federal gridlock a thousand miles away. The Florida Legislature's failure to act would only compound the problem. Sixteen states have already addressed this issue. It's now Florida's turn. In the next legislative session, I'll champion a bill that will allow all of Florida's children to pay in-state tuition if they're academically qualified and have attended a Florida high school.

In the end, we need to grasp the reality that the future of our students is intertwined with our own, and when we help them succeed we also help Florida rise to its full promise. As a state and as a people, we need to extend our moral consideration to those who are here through no fault of their own and who only want what each of us wants: a small chance to unlock the huge potential that is born within each child.

Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.