Nathan Heekin, a seventh-grader at Assumption Catholic School in Jacksonville, recently told members of the Senate Education Committee that he hopes to start taking college classes before he finishes high school.
He has a wide variety of interests in subjects including science, engineering, world history and the military.
But a change in the law in 2013 shifted the cost of dual enrollment programs from colleges to school districts, and inadvertently took that option away.
The change created a dilemma for private schools.
The law says colleges cannot pass tuition and most fees for dual enrollment classes along to students. The guarantee of free access to college-level courses has helped make Florida a dual enrollment leader.
While some colleges still allow private school students to take classes free of charge, many private schools now receive bills of $72 per credit hour for students enrolled in college courses. Unlike public schools, they do not receive state per-pupil funding. This leaves private schools with two options: either find a way to foot the bill, or limit dual enrollment options.
Nathan’s mother, Susan Heekin, told lawmakers the 2013 law change “has dampened this opportunity for all children and all private school students.”
In the years since the change, lawmakers have discussed measures intended to ensure dual enrollment access for private and homeschool students. But so far, they haven’t passed.This year might be different. After hearing from Nathan and his mother, the Senate Education Committee voted 8-2 to approve SB 1064. The measure would ensure private schools are not charged for tuition and fees when their students dual enroll at colleges.
“These parents are paying all their taxes and they are not getting anything back from the government and now they are being penalized in this window that there is not a way to compensate college except out of their pockets,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the bill’s sponsor.
Baxley is also the sponsor of a separate bill that would clear away dual enrollment obstacles for homeschool students. A House panel last week advanced its version, HB 731, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora.
The bill would ensure home education students don’t have to clear higher academic hurdles than other students to participate in dual enrollment. It would also allow a home education student to participate in a dual enrollment course without a high school GPA if the student receives a minimum score on a college placement test.
“This would recognize the home education parent as the guidance counselor for the student,” said Brenda Dickinson, a lobbyist with the Home Education Foundation.
Home education students don’t necessarily face the same billing issue as their private school counterparts, since by definition they have no school to receive the bills for tuition.
But their challenges are related because in both cases, colleges often have to cover the costs of their courses.
Some institutions, like Hillsborough Community College, don’t charge private school students for dual enrollment despite the law change.
Ashley Arthur Carl, executive director of marketing and public relations at HCC, said that because the college funds dual enrollment students for private school, home school and charter school students, the college loses $628,323 a year in tuition revenue. And those costs have been rising.
The number of private school students enrolled at HCC has increased from 43 in 2007-2008 to 326 in the 2016-17 school year.
At the same time, Carl said dual enrollment produces a superlative return on state tax dollars.
“We just need to find a way to ensure that it doesn’t negatively impact the college’s budget,” she said.
Rachel Ondrus, executive director for community engagement and special assistant to the president at Palm Beach State College, told the Senate committee she still had concerns about codifying an unfunded mandate for colleges. She said her institution had to absorb $1 million in budget cuts last year.
In an email, Ondrus wrote the college would lose an estimated $10,500 in revenue if it paid for private school students.
But she said her concern is not necessarily the cost to the college now, but what it could become in future years. She said she expects private school dual enrollment to increase. Now, there are 4,725 students at PBSC who are dual enrolled. Of those students, just 48 are from private schools.
Kevin Yurasek, a spokesperson for Lake-Sumter State College, said the school decided not to pay for dual enrollment students because it would take resources away from the college’s traditionally enrolled students.
In 2016-17 there were more than 3,000 students from private schools that participated in dual enrollment, according to a Senate analysis of the bill.
State Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale and an opponent of Baxley’s bill, asked the education committee whether a disproportionately lower number of students in private schools take dual enrollment compared to their public-school counterparts.
In response, Baxley said fewer private school students are participating in dual enrollment because the costs must come from their own pockets — or their schools’.
Farmer said he believes in dual enrollment and attended Catholic school for most of his education. But he joined Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale opposing the bill because of funding concerns.
“The colleges are already taking some hits,” he said. “I am not sure how we are going to fund this thing. I can’t get past that we are still 45th in the country in (K-12 public school) funding.”
Even so, Farmer said he would be willing to take a look at the bill once again if a funding mechanism could be figured out, emphasizing he wanted to help students like Nate.
Baxley told the committee he wanted to find a way to compensate the colleges.
“We are just looking for equity to access, and then we will work on the funding mechanism of how that gets resolved, so no one is left unattended,” he said.