Three Florida Bills Target Financial Aid and Campus Voices

Judge’s gavel lays flat. Photo by Unsplash.

Martina Brady / Staff Writer

Florida state legislators propose to raise tuition for public colleges and universities, withdraw Bright Futures scholarships, and crack down on left-wing thoughts on campus.

The Florida 2021 legislative sessions started on March 2, discussing university related budget costs at the steps of the state capital.

The COVID-19 pandemic left Florida with a $2 billion budget shortfall for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.  Empty beaches and restaurants have left lawmakers scrambling for ways to recover the monetary losses.

One way to raise money is to increase tuition for Florida public universities. Florida Senate president Wilton Simpson proposed raising Florida’s tuition that hasn’t changed since 2013.

Students’ raised payments would cover the cuts in funding universities face this year due to the pandemic. 

At a November Florida Senate session, Simpson told reporters that tuition increases were a “viable opportunity.”

But Dario Moreno, associate professor in FIU’s Department of Politics & International Relations, said this would be a last resort. 

“The legislature will probably do everything to avoid it, because tuition increases are so unpopular,” said Moreno.

Florida state college tuitions are the second lowest in the country, according to the Board of Governors. 

For students already struggling to pay for classes during the pandemic, a tuition increase would be an unwelcome surprise. 

Senator Rick Scott, former governor of Florida, fought to avoid a tuition increase during his six year term. He has been vocal in opposing the tuition increase, threatening to cut all federal dollars to Florida if the state legislature raises fees.

Florida currently has a Republican majority in the state Senate, House, and governor’s office. Conservative lawmakers are taking advantage of the trifecta and proposing controversial legislation. 

The most contentious is S.B. 86, a bill which would withhold Bright Futures aid for students in certain degree programs. 

Bright Futures scholarships are currently awarded to any Florida high school student with a qualifying GPA and standardized test scores. 

Introduced by Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala, the legislation would reduce assistance to students in degree paths which “do not lead directly to employment.” 

A freshman in one of these degree paths would have their registration put on hold until they have been informed of career prospects based on their major.

Legislators have not yet defined a list of acceptable majors, but will consider wages, job growth, and industry demand. 

A previous version would have completely revoked Bright Futures scholarships for students outside a list of acceptable degree programs. It specified 868 degree programs in education, healthcare, global competitiveness, STEM, and gap analysis.

The previous version also reduced assistance for students who earned college credit in high school through dual enrollment and Advanced Placement classes. 

According to Moreno, the bill is an attempt to direct students towards lucrative careers.

“It comes from a view that universities should be about preparing you guys for the job market, and that’s certainly part of what we do,” said Moreno. “But education is also about…reading a couple of good books and contemplating the universe. But this [bill] says, okay, we’re going to get a job.”

In a Senate panel on March 22nd, Sen. Baxley shared his concerns that students were becoming “unhirable”, Florida Politics reported

“If all you do is TikTok and Facebook, you can’t work in a modern office today,” he told the panel.

If passed, the legislation would take effect on July 1, 2021.

Moreno says there would have been a significant impact on FIU students if the bill passed in its original form.

“I think that a lot of students who [have] Bright Futures will be forced either to change majors or their funding,” he said. “It’d be horrible if you’re one semester away from getting a major, and that major is not on the list, that you could lose your funding.”

6,555 FIU students rely on Bright Futures scholarships annually, according to the most recent report by the Florida Department of Education.

If students feel pressured to avoid certain majors, says Moreno, these departments could be slashed.

“If you don’t have students, you’re going to be offering less classes. You need less faculty,” said Moreno. “Some departments may be merged because of this bill.”

Even departments which are deemed acceptable could be affected by the legislation. Moreno explained how English and history departments provide service for other majors, such as pre-law and engineering.

“If you’re a political science major, you have to take some English classes. If you’re a political science major, you should take some history classes,” he said. “So this is not only limited to the effects of those departments, it could have a snowball effect into other departments.”

Advocacy organizations such as Save Bright Futures have shown significant pushback to this legislation. Their petition to stop the bill has amassed over 120,000 signatures in just a month. 

In a letter to his colleagues, Sen. Baxley wrote that he had “awakened a giant”.

After opposition, the Senate Education Committee tabled the bill on March 9 for edits. The most recent change was added on March 23rd, after which the bill was sent to the Appropriations Committee. 

Another contentious Republican-led bill is aimed to balance partisan voices on state college campuses.

SB 264 would require public universities to do a yearly assessment survey on “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.” Intended to combat “cancel culture” at universities, the bill would make the survey results publicly available.

The legislation would also allow students to record lectures, and prohibit colleges from shielding students from “certain speech.”

According to Moreno, state Republicans have introduced this bill in fears of left-wing influence on college campuses. 

“As the country has become… more divided politically, the universities have become more of a political football,” said Moreno. “One of the perceptions of many conservative lawmakers is that universities are a hotbed of liberal thinking, and that conservatives are not treated fairly at universities.”

This idea might have been sparked by an incident in 2018, when the University of Florida attempted to block white nationalist Richard Spencer from speaking on campus.

Moreno thinks the bill will likely be signed into law.

“This bill will probably pass, because it has a lot of support. The governor supports it,” said Moreno. “And so I think it’s kind of a wake up call on universities in how they handled issues of free speech, and speakers on campus.” 

However, Moreno says conservative censorship is not an issue at FIU.

“I don’t think it’s a problem [at FIU],” he said. “I think it’s a misperception that comes… when you have a case at Harvard or Yale, or some other institution, and it makes the national news and legislators think there’s a big problem.”

Moreno says the bill does not specify what the survey will be used for.

“If [the survey] finds that conservative or liberal students feel that their views aren’t being represented, it will be reported to the Board of [Governors] and the local boards for them to take action,” he said. “What action they will take is what’s unclear.” 

The Florida Board of Governors oversees the State University System of Florida. Its 17 members are appointed by the Governor of Florida.

While the bill would not have direct impacts on the FIU administration, it could affect FIU Student Affairs. They might be under pressure to invite speakers to campus so as not to suppress certain speech.

“I think the people that are going to find themselves on the frontline are not so much faculty, but Student Affairs,” said Moreno. “They’re the ones that run the speakers. They’re the ones that run the public space.”

Another Republican legislator, Jeff Brandes of Pinellas, has introduced a bill on public records. SB 220 would make individuals applying for presidents of Florida state universities exempt from Florida’s public open records law.

The “Sunshine” Law, which Moreno says is one of the most extensive in the country, requires universities and other public institutions to disclose public record information by public institutions, in this case job applicants. 

SB 220 would create an exemption until the final candidates are selected.

“The way the law reads is, people can apply, and you keep it secret. But once you get the shortlist, once you whittle it down to the last [group of] candidates, you have to make it public,” said Moreno. “So it’s a way to encourage applications, but still protect the people who are applying.”

Proponents of the law say that the open records hurts the search process and deters people from applying, particularly sitting university presidents.

“Let’s say you’re vice president of.. the University of Florida… and you apply for a presidency of Florida Atlantic [University], you don’t want University of Florida to find out about it until you’re ready to tell them,” said Moreno. “You might get demoted… For top administrators, there’s a danger in that. So if you don’t keep it secret, you don’t get the best applicants.”

However, some argue the bill lacks transparency. Open government advocates say keeping the data secret is unnecessary, and could reduce data on applicant diversity. The legal precedent could threaten transparency in other government positions, such as city administrators.

State Republicans have been trying to pass this bill since the 90s, and reintroduced it this year.

“A couple of [Florida university] presidencies are coming up,” said Moreno. “Florida has one of the most extensive open record laws in the country… transparency has always won.” 

FIU has recently achieved milestones in the state legislature, such as a record-breaking increase in statefunding, says Moreno. 

“During the last legislative session, FIU got a huge increase in its recurring funding, which was one of the great achievements in the history of FIU government relations,” he said. “We got into the [School of International and Public Affairs] building, the medical school and the law school.”

FIU received $15 million in recurring funding, while University of South Florida received only $3.5 million. 

However, Moreno says the 2021 session hasn’t been as successful for FIU. 

“This year, there’s been a lot of pushback against universities,” he said. “It seems this year, we’re playing defense instead of offense.”

One thing is certain to Moreno: there will be money and political bloodshed involved.

“No man’s reputation or wallet is safe when the legislature is in session,” said Moreno.

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