Florida Republicans Advance Bill to Restrict Bright Futures Aid to "Employable" Students Only

Under the bill, only students whose majors are deemed "employable" by state standards would be eligible.
Under the bill, only students whose majors are deemed "employable" by state standards would be eligible. Photo by Good Free Photos/Unsplash
Over 100,000 Florida students and teachers have spoken out against a new bill that would limit student access to the Florida Bright Futures scholarship depending on the college major they choose. But despite intense public outcry, the bill cleared another hurdle in the Florida Legislature yesterday, gaining approval by the state's Senate Education Committee.

Senate Bill 86, introduced by Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, targets the popular Bright Futures program, a merit-based scholarship primarily funded through the Florida lottery. Under the bill, only students whose majors are deemed "employable" by state standards would be eligible to receive the scholarship. (In the 2019-2020 school year, 23 percent of Florida high school graduates were eligible for Bright Futures, according to state data.)

Per the bill's current language, Florida universities and the state's Board of Governors would be ordered to create a list of degree programs "which do not lead directly to employment." Students who enroll in programs included on the list would be barred from receiving state aid through Bright Futures, meaning high school students would be compelled to declare a college major before applying for the scholarship. If students change their major, it would have to be an approved discipline in order for them to continue receiving aid.

Senate Bill 86 also calls on the Board of Governors to create a dashboard showing the median salary for each academic discipline after graduation, as well as the estimated debt students would have to take on for those degree programs.

During yesterday's committee meeting, Baxley said the bill came out of anecdotal discussions he's had with business owners and attorneys who tell him that Florida college graduates aren't being properly educated and don't know how to write "a good business letter." Baxley opined that today's students aren't learning employable skills and that their proclivity toward social media is not translating to employability.

"We need to think differently. If all you can do is TikTok and Facebook, you can't work in a modern office today," said the 68-year-old Baxley.

Senate Bill 86 also removes a provision of Bright Futures that says students can get either 75 percent or 100 percent of their tuition and fees paid for depending on certain criteria, including SAT and ACT scores and volunteer hours. Instead, the bill would make it so that scholarships are awarded based on a variable amount set in the state's annual budget.

Student and teacher groups from across the state have raised intense opposition to the bill out of fear that it would effectively kill humanities programs at state universities and disincentive students who want to go into the arts and other nontraditional fields from attending Florida schools. A petition on SaveBrightFutures.org calling on signers to oppose Senate Bill 86 has received over 105,000 signatures.

Dozens of teachers and students attended the Education Committee meeting yesterday to urge state senators to vote against the bill, including Florida International University student body president Alexandra Valdes.

"Many students at FIU and throughout the state university system rely on Florida Bright Futures to continue their education in Florida," Valdes said at the meeting. "We are still concerned about the repeal of the promise to pay either 100 or 75 percent of student [tuition] and fees for Bright Futures students. Any cuts to Bright Futures will make it harder for students to reach their goals."

Sofia Lombardi, student government president at New College of Florida, pointed out that many parts of the bill are poorly defined.

"We cannot make trying times and the desire to define something undefinable squash the intellectual freedom we provide our next generation of students," she said. "My high-achieving peers who selected to attend New College over universities like Yale or the University of Michigan will be forced to take their talent elsewhere."

Both Republican and Democratic senators on the committee raised concerns about the bill being an example of government overreach, saying the legislature would essentially be responsible for determining what degrees many students seek.

"We talk a lot about school choice and capitalism and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.... All of those things are at risk with this bill," said Sen. Tina Scott Polsky, a Democrat from Palm Beach. "There's no choice in your major. The children don't decide, parents don't decide — the government decides."

Sen. Jennifer Bradley, a Republican from Orange Park, opposed the notion of the state being in control of student educational paths rather than their parents.

"I have spent the better part of the last decade having big discussions with my kids about what is their career, what is their passion, how do they want to transition to the workforce.... Those are some of the biggest and most impactful discussions a parent can have with their children. I believe I'm the one who should have that discussion," Bradley said.

In response to the outpouring of concerns over how the measure would limit student access to education in Florida, Baxley said he wants to challenge students to make them more productive.

"A certain amount of exertion and desperation in life challenges us to be our best," Baxley said. "I know we have to take risks and do things different if we want more productive outcomes. I look forward to challenging them."

The bill passed through the Education Committee with a 5-4 vote, with the Republican senators voting in favor and the Democrats voting against it. (Despite her comments, Bradley voted to pass the measure.) The bill still must pass a vote by the full Senate body before becoming law.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos