Florida higher-education overhaul headed to Gov. Scott

Bright Futures merit scholarships would be permanently expanded under a bill sent to Gov. Rick Scott on Monday.

The Senate voted 33-5 for the measure (SB 4), which was originally approved by the Senate in the first week of the session and is a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

The House earlier on Monday voted 84-28 for the bill, called the “Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act.”

The bill will cover 100 percent of the tuition and fees for some 45,000 top-performing Bright Futures students, who are known as “academic scholars.”

It also includes $300 per semester for textbooks and allows the scholarships to be used for summer classes.

Another 48,000 students, known as “medallion” scholars, will see their Bright Futures scholarships, which now cover about half the cost of tuition and fees, rise to 75 percent, or about $159 of the average $200 per credit hour charge for university courses. It will also cover summer classes.

The measure also expands some need-based aid programs, including doubling the state match for scholarships awarded to “first generation” college students. And it creates a new scholarship program for students from farmworker families.

The legislation makes permanent a “world-class” scholars program, which allows universities to recruit top-level professors and researchers. And it establishes another program that rewards top-performing law, medicine and other professional schools.

It would require the state university system to use a four-year graduation rate as part of its performance-funding formula, instead of the current six-year measure. The bill directs the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s 12 universities, to conduct a study on the current performance-funding formula.

Lawmakers stripped a provision requiring universities to develop block-tuition plans, where students would pay a flat fee each semester for their classes. Instead, schools are required to develop plans for getting more students to earn undergraduate degrees within four years.

Another provision in the bill could lead to the consolidation of the University of South Florida’s main Tampa campus with branch campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee by 2020.

The House inserted a more controversial provision, which was not in the original Senate legislation, banning “free-speech zones” on college campuses and allowing state universities and colleges to be sued if students or others “materially” disrupt campus speakers.

Opponents tried to remove the “free-speech” provision on Monday, arguing that the threat of a lawsuit could squelch expression on state university and college campuses.

But an effort by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, was defeated in a 75-37 vote in the House. And an attempt by Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, to remove the provision in the Senate was defeated in a voice vote.

The legislation revived a higher-education initiative passed by the 2017 Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Scott last year, when he objected to its impact on the state college system. The new legislation does not include major changes for the 28 state colleges.

Although last year’s bill was vetoed, lawmakers approved a one-year expansion of the Bright Futures scholarships for the academic scholars in the 2017-18 academic year as part of the state budget.

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