As you may know, the Legislature officially convenes the 2017 Session on Tuesday, March 7th. Higher Education issues have been front and center during the committee process in recent weeks. There are a number of bills that directly affect our campus.
On Wednesday, February 8, the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee voted 5-1 to support CS/SB 2 which has been titled the “Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act of 2017.” This is an omnibus bill addressing issues ranging from performance metrics to graduation rates to preeminence. UFF has serious concerns about several issues embedded in this legislation.
SB2 redefines metrics to emphasize a 4-year graduation rate, including penalizing universities for students who do not adhere to this metric. It also imposes a block tuition policy through which students would pay a fixed rate for however many credits they take in a given semester, forcing students to pay for 15 credits when their economic or family circumstances might dictate otherwise. We feel that these changes in emphasis could significantly impact students who of necessity cannot graduate in four years, affecting access to higher education for lower-income, minority, and non-traditional students. No analyzes have been made to determine the potential effect of this legislation. This bill has bipartisan support, but we believe that its breadth and complexity is eliminating discussion about certain specific issues it affects.
Another metric measures a University’s success by the starting salary of its graduates. This is designed to emphasize STEM and other fields where starting salaries are above the norm. It punishes universities for graduating students in areas like education, the arts, and humanities. Never mind that it is the Legislature itself that has kept Florida public teacher salaries below national averages. We understand that public education is funded by taxpayers. But a university education is not simply a form of advanced job training whose value can be measured by financial return.
On Monday, February 6, the Senate Education Committee passed SB 374, called the “College Competitiveness Act” by Senate leaders. This bill deemphasizes four-year programs at current state colleges. The bill would remove state colleges from the oversight of the State Board of Education and put them under a new State Board of Community Colleges. The bill will make 4-year baccalaureate degree programs a “secondary” mission of the colleges. Let’s just say that the colleges are very unhappy about this bill. Fortunately, the bill does not yet have a House companion bill.
“Gun rights” activist Senator Greg Steube introduced a bill in January that would have made open carry the law of the state everywhere, including campuses, the legislative chambers, “sterile” areas of airports, and other currently protected areas. This measure proved too draconian to pass the required committees Senator Steube has now broken this bill up into a myriad of bills, each one allowing carry in a currently prohibited area as well as open carry statewide. SB 622 would allow carry on campus. It has not yet been assigned to committee, but UFF will continue to join with Administration and campus law enforcement to oppose this ill-conceived and dangerous piece of legislation.
Last year, UFF supported a bill allowing fee waivers for graduate assistants. Quite simply, we don’t believe that GAs should have to pay up to 30% of their stipends for the right to work. This bill made it partway through the committee process with bipartisan support. This year, it is being folded into a general appropriations bill in partial form. We will be following and supporting this legislation, but would like to address specific fees for waiver.
There will be an increase in committee activity as we get closer to Session. A bill affecting our health insurance has already been introduced. We don’t yet know what the immediate future holds. Things move faster once the Session starts, as the notice for committee hearings is reduced from a week to 48 hours. We will keep faculty advised as to what is happening and when. All of us can advocate for our interests, whether by making phone calls, emailing, or appearing to testify or signing cards during committee sessions. Students and faculty are the end users, and those most affected by these bills. And not everything is contentious. Our voices can educate and convince our legislators if we make them heard. Please take the time to do it!