Nearly a decade after the Great Recession, Florida may finally restore one of its main programs that aids students headed to college.
The state Legislature late Monday approved an overhaul of the state's higher education system that is intended to lift schools in the Sunshine State into the ranks of elite counterparts.
A key part of the legislation now headed to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott would require the state to cover 100 percent of tuition costs for top performing high school students who attend a state university or college. Florida used to pay 100 percent of tuition for those eligible for the top level of the state's Bright Futures scholarship, but it was scaled back when the economy soured.
Those students eligible for the top award would also be able to use their Bright Futures scholarship — which is paid from lottery ticket sales — on summer courses for the first time.
Senate President Joe Negron, who called for having schools in Florida rival other public universities such as University of Virginia and University of North Carolina, pointed out that legislators agreed to spend nearly $600 million to increase financial aid and to boost spending in state universities. The new state budget nearly doubles the amount of financial aid provided to low-income students.
The Stuart Republican asserted the changes in the bill (SB 374) would encourage students to graduate faster.
"I believe Florida taxpayers will see a return worthy of their investment when our top Florida students attend our own colleges and universities, complete degree programs on-time, and then graduate with job opportunities in high-demand fields needed in our growing communities," Negron said.
Some Democrats questioned why the state was not boosting money available in other scholarship programs. Some Tampa Bay area legislators also were upset because a last-minute change pushed by Negron prevented University of South Florida from being eligible for money intended for the state's top universities. Currently only The University of Florida and Florida State University qualify for the extra money.
In January, the Florida Senate proposed lowering one of the bars for preeminence -- changing the necessary graduation rate metric from having at least 70 percent of students graduating within six years of enrollment to at least 50 percent within four years. USF's most recent graduation rate was 54 percent -- guaranteeing its chance to reach preeminence.
However, late Friday afternoon, as the 2017 legislative session came to a close, lawmakers proposed boosting the proposed graduation rate to at least 60 percent within four years. USF officials think the decision will delay the school from attaining preeminent status for three years.
Tom Lee (R-Brandon) expressed anger at what he called a lack of discussion about the alteration.
"I know there isn't a member in this chamber outside of the President's office and maybe the Appropriations staff that was aware that change was being made - not one," he said, raising his voice slightly as he repeated his point. "Not one - and I was embarrassed, Mr. President, I was flat embarrassed."
Lee said he received a text message late Friday night from Brian Lamb, the chairman of the USF Board of Trustees asking if he knew why the decision was made.
"And just like nobody should ever read about the death of their loved one in a newspaper, we should never learn about what we did from the people that we're impacting," Lee said. "That is just wrong."
Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) said her hometown school was "cheated" by the maneuver.
“Late at night Friday, the goal posts changed,” Cruz said.
Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) fired back, saying under the six year, 70 percent standard, USF would fall short there this year as it has a 67 percent graduation rate.
“No one was punished in this budget or in the conforming bill,” Galvano said. “To me, moving a goal post or punishing is when someone is entitled to something and then you take that entitlement away.”
Galvano added that lawmakers could review the 60 percent requirement when law makers set pre-eminence standards for next year.
“Everything we're talking about is prospective and based on future achievement,” Galvano said.
And Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) pointed out that without the preeminent money, USF will receive over $57 million in additional operational and construction funds in the proposed budget.
"It's easy to lose sight of, what do they say, the forest for the trees?" Latvala said. "You don't see the forest for the trees, well this is a case of that. That's a lot of money, that's a lot of new money."
That funding includes around $15 million for the construction of the downtown Tampa Morsani College of Medicine and renovations to Davis Hall on the USF St. Petersburg campus.
The House voted 85-27 for the bill, while the Senate approved the legislation by a 35-3 vote.