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House Lawmakers Debate Scholarship Programs

The Florida House took on two measures related to scholarships this week.
Paul Stainthorp via Flickr

This week the Florida House tussled over two scholarship programs—one aimed at high school students headed to college and the other at current teachers furthering their education.

Probably the most well-known scholarship in the state is Florida’s Bright Futures program.  Since its inception, it’s supported more than 2 million students.  Last school year alone, a little more than 150,000 received benefits.  And they’re pretty substantial.  The top level—Florida Academic Scholars—pays out up to $103 per credit hour.  And at many universities, that’s about half the cost of attendance.  But for Rep. John Tobia (R-Melbourne), that’s the part of the problem.

“Florida Bright Futures is based on the Hope Scholarship from Georgia, and came over providing 100 percent scholarships for our best and brightest with the intention of keeping them in the state of Florida,” Tobia says.  “As the standards have not risen, and as the money has decreased that promise of 100 percent now sits at below fifty.”

But standards for bright futures scholarships have been rising, a point brought up by Rep. Reggie Fullwood (D-Jacksonville). 

“Rep. Tobia,” he asks, “are you aware that the last time, since the last time that we raised the academic standards about forty percent less minority students have qualified for bright futures?”

But Tobia believes standards need to be lifted even higher, and he says his plan doesn’t take into account the color of anyone’s skin.  His proposed amendment would’ve pushed SAT standards to at least 1300 for the top scholarships, and notwithstanding his complaints about the level of funding, the proposal nothing with the amount of the award.   

Tobia’s amendment failed on a voice vote but the underlying bill allowing certain deferrals and increasing flexibility in meeting public service requirements passed.  

Later, the House debated another scholarship measure—this time aimed at teachers.  Rep. Erik Fresen (R-Miami) tacked his Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship program onto another bill. 

Which prompted a rules fight.  Rep. David Richardson (D-Miami Beach) brought the point of order.  He argues Fresen’s amendment shouldn’t be included because it isn’t germane—i.e. it’s unrelated to the underlying bill.

“This bill is about discipline and liability,” Richardson says.  “The amendment introduces, the amendment before us now introduces a completely different and unrelated issue, creating the Florida’s best and brightest teacher scholarship program providing funding for scholarships to be awarded to teachers who have demonstrated a high level of academic achievement.”

But House Rules chair Ritch Workmon (R-Melbourne), overruled Richardson. 

So why was a program supporting continuing education for teachers so contentious?  Well, Fresen was being a little bit sneaky.  He originally pitched the program in a standalone bill, but he ended up postponing it on the floor, which typically means you don’t have the votes.  Amending one bill to another is nothing new, but it does tends to raise the ire of lawmakers who opposed the bill that couldn’t make it on its own. 

So then what got everyone so upset about Fresen’s bill?  It looks back to the teacher’s SAT scores as part of determining eligibility, no matter how long they’ve been teaching.  Fresen points to studies suggesting teachers with SAT scores in the eightieth percentile or higher perform better in the classroom.  But Rep. Kevin Rader (D-Boca Raton) points out this ignores people who are good teachers now, but underperformed when they were younger.

“And I think a lot people are a lot different, a few years later once they get a lot of maturing in them and a lot maybe business world experience.  Does that data that you’ve spoken about does that really take into effect the change of people over time and how good they can be of a teacher?

In the end, lawmakers adopted the amendment, and the underlying bill—relating to an education panel that handles allegation of misconduct—passed the House.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.