New Florida higher education package emerges in the House — and it includes Covid-19 legal protections

Andrew Atterbury

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House crafted a new higher education package on Tuesday that combines numerous leadership priorities like tuition breaks for students, heightened accountability measures around private college grants and a legal shield protecting schools from coronavirus lawsuits.

The wide-ranging proposal, FL HB1261 (21R), is now ready for consideration from the full chamber after passing the top House education committee by a 14-6 vote with some Democrats in opposition. The minority party raised objections surrounding the upcoming — yet unknown — costs tied to the tuition waivers, joining private schools who are fighting against the measure that would cut off some 13,000 students from grants during a pandemic.

“This bill is not about hurting students, this is about empowering students,” said sponsor state Rep. Jackie Toledo (R-Tampa). “This is about guiding students and families.”

HB 1261, originally a bill containing a “buy one, get one free” tuition and fee waiver for high demand courses, is now packed full of higher education proposals sought by House Speaker Chris Sprowls to expand student access. The legislation quadrupled in size on Tuesday as lawmakers folded in other tuition breaks that have been advancing this session along with the Covid-19 legal protections, which were recently introduced in the Senate.

House members showed particular interest in a provision that would offer in-state tuition rates to out-of-state students who have grandparents living in Florida. Some had reservations that the policy could spark fraud by spawning companies like a made-up "Grandparents R Us" that aims to score lower tuition for students while others suggested the bill uses grandparents "for an ATM machine."

Lawmakers also called into question how much the tuition waiver could ultimately cost universities. The going rate for tuition and fees for a Florida resident would cost $5,991.79 for 30 credit hours, compared to $20,719.07 for out-of-state students, according to a bill analysis.

But while the House spending plan includes some $66.3 million for the “buy one, get one” tuition break, the budget impact of the grandparent waiver remains “indetermined.”

Should 20 percent of out-of-state students at Florida State University took advantage of the grandparent policy, it could cost as much as $25 million, according to state Rep. Christine Hunschofsky (D-Parkland).

“My concern is really about what is going to be the financial impact on the universities,” Hunschofsky said.

Toledo defended the policy on Tuesday, noting that only grandchildren with high marks on college entrance exams are eligible for the program.

“We have so many grandparents that are paying into our taxes right now,” Toledo said. “We would love for their biological grandchildren to be able to come to the state of Florida — to receive an education here, to start a family here, to build a life here.”

The new-look legislation also would install a metrics system ranking private colleges on access, affordability, retention and student employment rates to determine eligibility for Effective Access to Student Education, or EASE grants. Based on this format, 16 of 34 schools belonging to the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida would be cut off from the program next budget year, along with 12,826 students.

Private school leaders continued to push back on that proposal Tuesday.

“This money is being pulled out from under their feet now, in the middle of a pandemic, when a lot of their families are struggling financially,” testified Bob Boyd, president and CEO of Independent Colleges and Universities.

House members, though, are standing strong on the changes to private school grants.

The chamber’s outspoken K-12 budget writer, state Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) claimed that “ICUF doesn’t want a standard” for measuring its schools. Should fewer schools qualify, the grant awards will increase for students, Fine added.

“This doesn’t have to be a program about cutting people out or saving money, it can be about dedicating resources to those schools that provide a great outcome for their students,” Fine said.

Rolling the policy into the higher education package shows the House taking a hard line on a provision the Senate has shown no interest in thus far into session. Senate leaders want to increase spending toward private college grants by more than $29.5 million for next year, a stark contrast to what is currently sought by the House.

“If your school is in the business of educating our students, they should be graduating them,” Toledo said. “If not, they should be out of that business.”

The House policies are showing some life in the upper chamber.

The proposed “buy one, get one” tuition waiver is slated for its second and final committee stop on Wednesday. The grandparent fee waiver, however, was heard two weeks ago in the Senate and has yet to receive a second hearing.