TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — State lawmakers are debating changes on Wednesday to Florida's popular merit-based scholarship, Bright Futures. If passed, Senate Bill 86 could take away guarantees that recipients will receive either 75% or 100 % of their tuition paid.
The Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program establishes lottery-funded scholarships to reward Florida high school graduates for high academic achievement.
Last week, a Senate panel advanced a bill via a party-line vote limiting funding for areas of study that don't have promising job prospects.
Thomas Truong, a Florida high schooler, was among the dozens who watched the Senate Education Committee meeting in Tallahassee last week. He said he was there to fight for his future.
"This bill would take away funding from me and countless other students in Florida," Truong said after the hearing. "Likely, I will not be able to go to college in Florida. I'll have to take on student debt and that's something I really don't want to do."
Truong has plans to pursue a history degree. He worries it would put him in jeopardy of a severely reduced Bright Futures scholarship if SB 86 gets final approval.
He and his friends, fellow high schoolers, created an online campaign to kill the bill. Their website regularly generates 1,000 hits a day and features a digital petition, which has collected more than 100,000 signatures.
"By passing this bill, you’re crushing a lot of students' dreams," Alexandro Valdez, one of Truong's friends said.
The policy's latest version would have education leaders, like the state university Board of Governors, create a list of degrees that don't lead directly to employment. As the bill was originally written, those on that list would be at risk of a reduced scholarship, according to the legislation.
However, after more than 2,000 communications to his office about the bill, Baxley walked that part of the bill back.
In its amended form, SB 86 would change Bright Futures' aid structure. Currently, those qualified get 75% or 100% of tuition paid. The bill would instead tie aid to budget appropriations.
It also requires the state university Board of Governors to still create the list of degrees that don't directly lead to employment through a publicly-accessed online dashboard.
Additionally, in the amended version, students will have a hold placed on their registration before the end of their first year. Then, they will have to enroll in the college or university's career center and take a career readiness course before the school can lift the hold.
Sponsor Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the change will encourage all areas of study to better connect students with jobs after graduation.
Democrats in committee came down hard on the legislation last week, calling it unneeded and "un-American."
"It just doesn't sound right," said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale last week. "You're going to tell the students what they can and can't do?"
But opposition couldn't stop the GOP majority from advancing the policy to its second of three committee stops before reaching the full Senate. The third committee stop is in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, March 31.