Florida Sen. Dennis Baxley

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake

(The Center Square) – State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, “hit the brakes” last week on his proposed revamp of the Bright Futures scholarship program, Florida’s largest college tuition assistance plan, after receiving “a lot of different inputs.”

Baxley revised his bill, Senate Bill 86, on Monday and the overhauled measure was reintroduced Tuesday before the Senate Education Committee where it also garnered “a lot” of input during a 150-minute discussion except they weren’t different – all were negative.

No matter. After Baxley refused further changes to his bill and two amendments failed, SB 86 advanced through the committee in a partisan 5-4 vote, sending it to the second of three required hearings necessary for a chamber vote.

SB 86 would require the state university system’s Board of Governors (BOG) and State Board of Education (SBE) to approve a list of career certificate, undergraduate and graduate degree programs “that lead directly to employment” beginning the 2022-23 academic year. Those majors not on “the list” would receive Bright Futures funding.

Baxley said the intent of SB 86 is not to target certain majors or save money.

“We are redesigning the program to have efficacy between the world of work and the world of education, to make them relevant to each other,” he said. “This is not a financial move – it is rethinking the philosophy of how we connect these two worlds.”

Established in 1997 and funded by the Florida Lottery, the Florida Bright Futures program awards college tuition to high-achieving high school students.

For the 2019-20 fiscal year, $618.6 million was disbursed through Bright Futures to nearly 120,000 Florida high school graduates to attend a state university or college. About 25,190, or 71 percent of undergraduates at the University of Florida are Bright Futures recipients, according to the university.

Baxley said between Bright Futures and other programs, the state is spending about $862 million on scholarships and taxpayers should “have some say” on how it is spent.

“I’ve been a businessman since I was 5 or 6 years old. I’ve always known if somebody paid for something, they would have some say,” he said. “You need to have a sense of direction, at least consider these things, and we should use this system to incentivize that.”

Baxley said comments from students, teachers and other advocates give him the impression Bright Futures “is wandering into an entitlement, being viewed as something they are entitled to have.”

Advocates from the League of Women Voters, Florida PTA, Florida Student Association and United Faculty of Florida testified against SB 86, as did students from nearly all 12 state public universities.

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, acknowledged there “are some promising things about this bill” before refuting Baxley’s claim SB 86 would give taxpayers “a say” in how Bright Futures money is spent.

“Well, they’ve always had a say,” he said. “You have to earn these scholarships. You have to meet the criteria. These students have done that.”

Thurston filled a failed amendment to remove the prospective list of “unacceptable majors” from the bill, calling SB 86 “un-American.”

“It doesn’t sound right that we are going to tell the students what they can and cannot do,” he said. “I control the purse-strings so we don’t let you follow your dreams.”

An amendment from Rep. Tina Polsky, D-Baton Raton allowing “unacceptable majors” students to challenge the designation also failed.

“This is very premature because such a list doesn’t exist,” Baxley said. “Maybe there won’t be any (unacceptable majors) on the list.”

Polsky asked Baxley to name a major “that could be on the list.”

“I won’t do that because then that becomes the story,” Baxley said, adding, “I have no idea” what the BOG and SBE will decide.