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Florida lawmakers roll back college scholarship cuts and changes after students and parents backlash

Florida state lawmakers have backed off much of their plan to gut a beloved senior scholarship program after a backlash from students and parents.

More than 110,000 students were awarded the Bright Futures merit-based scholarship in 2020, but that number could have been drastically reduced after Republican State Senator Dennis Baxley introduced Senate Bill 86. His proposal stated that only students going to areas he believes would perform well. paid jobs could receive the award, which pays between 75 and 100 percent of tuition in the state at public and private universities.

Had it passed, SB 86 would have left out students who wanted to study history, arts, or English, with no money for a scholarship that has been part of Florida’s higher education system for years. 1990. Students felt they were about to choose between scholarships and their academic interests.

“It was devastating,” high school student Alexandro Valdez, 16, said of the proposal. “A politician said my dreams were not worth funding.”

The merit-based scholarship uses state lottery money and is awarded to high performing students based on a combination of high school credits, standardized test scores, volunteer hours, and GPA thresholds. Since 1997, this state has distributed $ 6.8 billion in tuition fees to over 2.8 million students. But the proposed cuts did not stop at restrictions on majors – SB 86 would also have reduced aid for students who had previously taken college or advanced high school courses, and would have reduced the amount given to those who did. had others. Scholarships.

Valdez was not alone in his anger. Students, parents, arts groups and others have said SB 86 will ruin a program that in some cases renders educational opportunities beyond the reach of the state’s top students. Students currently enrolled in the program said they were blind, as did high school students who planned all of their high school education around the scholarship.

“If our education is disrupted, our thoughts and contributions must be taken into consideration,” Valdez said.

He and a group of teenagers from Orlando and Tallahassee jumped into action. They created a website, “Save Bright Futures”, which provided information on what was going on and how they could help. Annotating the bill to make it accessible to a wider audience, they outlined its ramifications and encouraged fellow Floridians to sign petitions, call representatives, and attend Senate hearings and testify.

Kaylee Duong, 18, who helped organize the Save Bright Futures campaign, said the proposed changes put her in a difficult position. An elderly person, Duong is currently trying to decide where to go to college. Her two older brothers were scholarship recipients, and as she passed through middle school and high school, her family made sure that she met all the requirements for her to receive it too. SB 86 prompted Duong to consider out-of-state colleges more seriously, where she believed her financial aid could be more stable.

“It’s safe to say that if that didn’t happen it would be a much easier choice and I would probably attend,” she said. Not Losing Duong is part of Bright Futures’ goal of preventing the brain drain and keeping the state’s smartest students at home.

One of Duong’s other organizers, Lorenzo Urayan, who wants to go to art school, worried he couldn’t afford college unless he studied something that state lawmakers considered more “practical” under the proposed changes.

“I think STEM and the humanities are important,” said Urayan, 17. “It’s not fair for politicians to decide what you should study.”

Duong and Urayan were not alone in their outrage. In his letter to other state senators in March announcing the withdrawal of some of the more controversial changes, Baxley wrote: “We have awakened a giant.”

High school students Heesu Seo, Thomas Truong, Alexandro Valdez and Shaheer Ali at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, where they lobbied lawmakers to save the Bright Futures scholarship on March 18.Courtesy of Shaheer Ali

An imperfect good

While Baxley’s withdrawal of his revisions was a major victory for students fighting to save the stock market, lawyers and other lawmakers have said the fight is on.

“It’s still not a good bill,” said Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who received the Bright Futures scholarship while in college.

Some lawmakers in the House are now proposing a reduction in the textbook allowance in the stock market, which would save $ 37 million.

“Big changes are not an option right now,” Eskamani said, “but students who need this textbook allowance deserve this access.”

The program itself isn’t perfect either. Black students make up over 21% of the Kindergarten to Grade 12 student body in Florida, but only 6% of Bright Futures grantees are black. And although white students compromise 36% of total students, they have made up over half of scholarship recipients each year since the program’s inception.

The researchers found that state-provided merit aid can often donate money to already advantaged students and is not aimed at improving access for disadvantaged students, said Justin Ortagus, director of the institute. of higher education from the College of Education at the University of Florida.

Ortagus, who himself received the scholarship, said that doesn’t mean merit assistance programs don’t succeed when they come to an end.

“We have to be honest about what we prioritize, and merit aid is not the mechanism to close the equity gap,” he said. A program like Bright Futures “makes a lot of sense to the state” because its goals are to keep the best and brightest in the state at home so that they can contribute to the local economy and increase the prestige of institutions. local, Ortagus said.

While the program isn’t explicitly aimed at helping low-income students, it ends up helping many, including Ortagus, who grew up low-income and went to school where he now teaches with 100% of his fees. tuition covered.

SB 86, he suspects, would only have exacerbated the inequalities that are already endemic to many merit-based assistance programs.

Students who helped fight to save the stock market said they knew it wasn’t perfect and the experience of successfully lobbying the state legislature to save Bright Futures encouraged them to continue to fight for more equitable higher education in Florida.

“Bright Futures has always had disproportionately fewer black and brown recipients due to the SAT requirement,” said Thomas Truong, a 16-year-old organizer of Save Bright Futures. “What that would have done is restrict it even more for minorities.”

“We want education to be accessible to all,” he said. Now he now has a feeling that he can be a voice to make this happen.

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