Dual enrollment bill moves forward

Lisa Buie

A bill that would allow more students to get a head start on college won approval from a Senate panel Tuesday.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education voted 6-3 along party lines to approve SB 52, with Republicans supporting the bill.

SB 52 would set aside $12.5 million in state money to cover the costs for homeschooled and private school students who participate in dual enrollment programs by taking courses from a partnering college or university. The bill also would allocate $16 million to cover the costs of dual enrollment courses taken during the summer for all Florida students, including those who attend public schools.

“What is new is that we are also providing the funding for students in private schools,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers.

Rodrigues said the bill also creates a funding mechanism to prevent the colleges from having to absorb all dual enrollment costs for homeschooled students. The law currently provides for public school funding as part of the state’s education funding formula, but only during the regular academic year. Senate Bill 52 would expand that funding by covering costs for all students who enroll in summer dual enrollment classes.

Issues surrounding dual enrollment funding occurred in 2013 when a change in the law shifted the cost of dual enrollment programs from colleges to school districts. Because school districts are state funded, the state picked up the cost. But private schools, which were not allowed pass the cost on to their students, had no alternative but to limit their dual enrollment offerings. (The law already prohibited colleges passing along the costs to homeschooled students.)

As a result, the number of students in private schools taking dual enrollment courses has decreased by 60%, even as public school student enrollment doubled during the same period.

The situation dramatically affected school choice scholarship students. During the same enrollment period, the number of lower-income students attending private schools on Florida Tax Credit Scholarships more than quadrupled, putting more lower-income students at an even greater disadvantage.

Lawmakers have tried for the past few years to clarify the issue, but proposed legislation never made it to the governor’s desk despite bipartisan support.

Rodrigues said this latest attempt to correct the problem benefits the state overall because students who participate in dual enrollment go to college at a much higher than their classmates and are more likely to earn college degrees than their peers.

Adam Gaffey, head of school at Robert F. Munroe Day School in the rural North Florida community of Quincy, urged senators to support the bill, saying it would make college more accessible to the lower-income and minority students who attend his private school. He said a teacher contacted him recently to say that 25% of her dual enrollment students couldn’t afford textbooks for those classes.

“Dual enrollment is a gateway to college for so many students,” he said. “Without Senate Bill 52, we will continue to see lower participation in dual enrollment. It’s an investment in Florida that will have a huge return.”

Democrats on the panel criticized the bill, saying it was irresponsible to spend $28.5 million in what might be a challenging budget year. They also called it an attempt to divert money from district schools.

“I’m just worried about our public schools,” said Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.

Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, reminded critics that the state’s formula to pay for education funds students, not institutions, and that bill is an attempt to level the playing field for those who are economically disadvantaged.

Rodriguez pointed out that the bill also benefits public school students by including $16 million to cover the costs of summer courses.

“The bulk of this (bill) benefits the children that (opponents) say they want to protect,” he said.

The bill now moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee. A companion bill, HB 281, sponsored by Rep. Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville, is in the House Secondary Education & Career Development Subcommittee.

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