Thomas Truong, Shaheer Ali and Ronin Lupien are neither activists nor organizers by trade.
Yet the three students — one a freshman at UF, the other two juniors at Lake Nona High School in Orlando — have led an uproar of student opposition to a higher education reform bill in the Florida Senate.
The bill in question is SB 86, titled rather unassumingly as “An act relating to student financial aid.” Filed by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, SB 86 originally proposed an overhaul of eligibility for the Florida Bright Futures scholarship program that would only pay full awards to students whose majors “lead directly to employment.”
Currently, Bright Futures funds more than a hundred thousand students’ educations annually in Florida. March 2021 estimates by the Office of Economic and Demographic Research forecast 117,973 total scholarship awards for fiscal year 2021-22.
Baxley’s proposal gained swift backlash after it was filed due to the significant changes it would bring to the state’s premier merit-based student financial aid program.
“It was enraging and disheartening that Bright Futures, which we’ve all worked for, could be taken away just like that,” Truong said in an interview. He and Ali heard about SB 86 at the same time while talking with their friends, and they decided they wanted to do something about it.
Lupien read about the initiative himself in local news and decided to make a post on Instagram to inform his peers. After his post gained a lot of traction, he created a new account called @stand4brightfutures.
As opposition mounted on social media, the groups combined their efforts into a movement called Save Bright Futures, which shares resources on the bill and encourages parents and students alike to contact their state senators.
In response to the protests, Baxley briefly delayed the bill to soften some of the language, but the core intent and effect of the bill initially remained unchanged.
The Senate Education committee held a hearing on SB 86 on March 16, where students, parents and professors expressed concerns over the proposal’s impact on students who earned credits through Advanced Placement or other programs and its then-unknown restrictions on certain majors.
Despite the vocal opposition, Republicans on the committee advanced SB 86 in a party-line vote.
However, just six days later on March 22, Baxley filed a “strike-all” amendment eliminating most of the bill’s most controversial measures.
“My goal in filing Senate Bill 86 was to begin the discussion about both the cost and the value of the degrees and programs within our higher education system,” Baxley said in a letter to his Senate colleagues. “Based on your feedback, and with that goal in mind, I have filed an amendment that represents a concrete step forward in this discussion.”
On March 31, the Senate Appropriations committee advanced the now-amended bill to be debated on the floor by the full chamber on April 7.
SB 86 no longer restricts Bright Futures scholarships by degree program or advanced credits earned in high school, but it still leaves the amount of money available for financial aid up to General Appropriation rather than being funded by the Florida Lottery.
Save Bright Futures has not changed its position. The nonpartisan group hopes to build a broad coalition against SB 86, especially with clubs, political organizations and student governments on college campuses.
Lupien told the Florida Political Review that he has launched a campaign to pressure student body presidents at state universities to adopt a resolution against SB 86. He says that presidents Claire Mitchell of USF, Reuben Gardener of UWF, Ally Schneider of UNF, Sabrina La Rosa of UCF, and Xavier McClinton of FAMU have indicated support.
The group has also received support from other nonpartisan organizations as well as some chapters of College Democrats.
Although it advanced out of the hearing and has the vocal support of Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, SB 86 faces uncertainty from the GOP as well.
At the moment, the Florida House has no companion bill to SB 86, and Education and Employment Committee Chairman Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he doesn’t plan to address the issue.
Dawson Jackson, the chairman of the Lafayette County Republican Party, had a number of concerns about the original bill. At 18 years old, Jackson is the youngest member of the Republican Party of Florida’s state committee.
“[SB 86] gives an unelected body — the Board of Governors — a rain check to determine which degrees are valuable,” he had said in an interview prior to the strike-all amendment being filed.
A UF student and Bright Futures recipient himself, Jackson opposed the bill in its original form.
“It lowers the incentive for Florida’s brightest students to stay in Florida,” Jackson said.
In a follow-up interview, Jackson stated he no longer opposed the bill.
“I don’t have a problem with Bright Futures being under appropriations,” he said. “The bill was never going to be passed as [originally] written.”
Truong, Ali and Lupien of Save Bright Futures all agreed that they would only support initiatives that expand access rather than restrict it. They plan to continue their opposition throughout the legislative session.
“We want everyone to call their legislators,” Ali said. “One call can make the difference of tens of thousands of dollars saved for families across Florida.”
Featured image: Florida State University dorms. Unmodified public domain image.
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