SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - Opponents of a bill in the Florida Senate that could jeopardize funding for the popular Bright Futures college scholarship program say they’ll keep fighting, even after suffering their third defeat in Tallahassee Wednesday.
Senate Bill 86 would remove current guarantees of 100 percent funding of college tuition and fees students who qualify. Students must meet high thresholds of GPA, college entrance test scores and community service hours to earn Bright Futures money.
The bill sailed through the GOP-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday on an 11-8 party-line vote. The next stop is debate and a vote by the full Senate.
Currently, Bright Futures is funded entirely through Florida Lottery proceeds and every in-state student who qualifies is assured of a scholarship.
But if SB 86 becomes law, the actual amount of available scholarship money would depend on the state’s annual budget, which would likely fluctuate from year to year. Many parents fear it would be too easy for lawmakers to cut the funds entirely.
“It’s wrong -- it’s morally wrong -- to ask children to work for something and then take it away,” said Cyndi Brillhart, a single mother who is depending on Bright Futures to help her daughter go to college. She’s also a moderator of Florida Voters Against Scholarship Cuts, a Facebook group with 7,600 members, dedicated to defeating SB 86.
The bill’s author, State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, has steadfastly maintained the sole intention of the legislation is to prompt students to have a career path after college. A section of the bill would require college freshmen to get career counseling and review data collected by the state’s Board of Governors, including projected salaries for various occupations that would be available on a website “dashboard.”
Another provision in the original version of the bill would have required state officials to compile a list of college majors that were more likely to lead to immediate employment after graduation. Only students majoring in those subjects would have qualified for full funding. The bill also reduced funding for students who earned college credit while in high school.
After a huge backlash, those provisions were removed. But Brillhart is not impressed with Baxley’s compromise. “You don’t need a bill to create a dashboard. I think it was all smoke and mirrors,” she told ABC7 after Wednesday’s vote.
She said voters need to pay attention -- and follow the money. “You (Baxley) took all the window dressing out to make it look like you were compromising,” she said. “Their case is to get their hands on Lottery money so they can achieve their ultimate aim of privatizing our state.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Baxley’s repeated his claim that guarantees send the wrong message to college students. “We’re just being truthful with them, that it depends on our financial status as to how much we can pay,” he said.
He described it as “reality therapy.” “Nobody can guarantee you, that for the next eight years, you’re going to have everything you need. The whole tuition on these (scholarships) is like $10,000. I worked 51 hours a week. No one paid for any of my college.”
Democrats on the Appropriations Committee tried to restore the funding guarantee through an amendment but it failed in a voice vote.
“Without this amendment, there is no guarantee for these kids,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale. “These kids are the best and the brightest. That’s why we call it this. They do all this extra work and community service. They earn this. We shouldn’t be subjecting it to the whims of future legislatures,” he argued.
Brillhart says the stakes are high. “I’m concerned about the health and quality of schools for all kids,” she said.
She’s also trying to open a new conversation, creating an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. She wants anyone interested to take time to write to her.
“I’m going to see who shows up. We can make it a point to educate Florida voters so they can begin to vote in their own interests. “We plan to get together and harness the energy and do something good,” she explained.
If something doesn’t happen, she says the consequences could be profound. “They’re voting against their kids. The voucherazation of Florida could be the nail in the coffin of Florida education.”
In 2019, the most current year data is available, 111,973 students received Bright Futures scholarships, totaling $618.6 million.
Out of those scholarships, at least 3,960 were for students from the Suncoast.