Votes in both legislative chambers on Monday brought the sweeping, permanent expansion of Bright Futures scholarships one step closer to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk — and within the reach of nearly 100,000 high-achieving students.
The bill’s passage came amid a push-pull of power between the chambers in the waning days of the legislative session. The Senate had passed its priority higher education package in early January with a unanimous vote, making it the first bill to clear the floor. Meanwhile, the House took its time, expanding on the bill with a few key differences.
The Senate approved those late Monday.
Now the last hurdle is Gov. Scott, who plans to work on the bill himself, said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the incoming Senate president.
Beyond Bright Futures, the bill sheds light on university foundations, tweaks performance metrics and wades into campus free speech, a contentious issue.
But the bill enshrines an expansion of the state’s premier merit-based scholarship in law, sending a huge swath of sharp Florida students to college for a fraction of the cost.
The top tier of Bright Futures scholars will be able to attend Florida universities with 100 percent of tuition and some fees paid by the state. The tier just below them — with a cutoff of a 3.0 GPA, and a 1170 SAT or 26 ACT — will be able to attend with 75 percent of tuition and some fees paid.
All in all, nearly 100,000 top students will have their bills slashed, a state investment of about $124 million that leaders say will keep top-tier students in Florida.
“I want to talk about Bright Futures,” said Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Port Richey, a recent college student. “This will change lives and will enable students who never thought they could afford a college education.”
The few differences between the House and Senate dealt with free speech zones, the transparency of university foundations, a consolidation of the University of South Florida system and a study of Florida’s performance-based funding structure. They were hammered out when the Senate voted 33-5 to accept the House’s additions.
Debate in both chambers on Monday largely centered on the House’s campus free speech measure, which forbids universities from shunting speech into cordoned-off ‘free speech zones’ and lets anyone who feels his or her rights were infringed upon to confront the school. The bill’s language related to free speech has rile some.
Few public universities in the state have these free speech zones, but Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, who initially brought the language forward, said he’s concerned about a rising tide of what he sees as campus intolerance. Meanwhile, a chorus of Democrats called the provision a “poison pill,” saying that Rommel’s attempt to unleash speech would end up constraining it.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Winter Park, said the bill just gives additional tools to provocateurs and Neo-Nazis, allowing them to sue if they feel their message is being trampled.
“Why don’t we go ahead and remove this very controversial language that elevates hate speech against those of us who speak up against that hate speech?” said Smith, whose attempt was shot down.
Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, recited some of the slurs she has been called, questioning whether the right to speak freely would mean enduring that hate.
When the bill arrived in the Senate, members there also protested. One said he was troubled by the process of accepting a House amendment that the Senate had left on the cutting room floor.
“I keep feeling like I’m in the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale. “These bills have really good cores, and really bad stuff keeps getting tacked on at the end of the day.”
The bill also would ask the state to study the performance-based funding system for higher education. Leading state lawmakers have largely embraced the concept but concede that schools stuck at the bottom suffer even as they improve.
Currently, universities contribute to a pool of money, then compete in areas such graduation rates. The three bottom-ranked schools get no money.
Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, repeated his criticisms of the “flawed” system, laying out the numbers: Since 2014, of $720 million in performance-based funding, Florida A&M University has earned just $17 million, and the University of North Florida, just $11.4 million, he said.
A school can be penalized, he noted, then be asked “to come back year after year and compete on the same playing field.”