TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Despite differences over their initial higher-education budgets, legislative leaders told the Florida Board of Governors on Thursday that they support more initiatives designed to boost the state university system.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said he began his higher-education agenda with the “simple idea” of raising Florida’s 12-school university system to an elite, nationally recognized level.
“In the last couple of years, we have made enormous progress toward that goal,” Negron told the Board of Governors, which oversees the state universities.
Among other improvements, the University of Florida has moved into the top 10 in U.S. News & World Report rankings of public universities.
But Negron said he is more motivated by the impact of the changes on students, saying raising the system’s reputation while increasing graduation rates and lowering student debt “has a tangible benefit to students and their families.”
“This is why I care passionately about this. Not because of U.S. News & World Report rankings,” Negron said. “I care about it because it’s revolutionary to students’ lives and it’s transformational.”
Among the issues on the 2018 legislative agenda are an effort to make an expansion of the Bright Futures scholarships permanent and to hold state universities to a performance standard using a four-year graduation rate.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, while going out of his way to credit Negron with being the driver of the higher-education changes, voiced strong support for a program that provides funding to the universities to hire “world class” professors and researchers.
Corcoran, who has been a staunch critic of trying to attract businesses to Florida with financial incentives, said expanding the top-level research programs in state universities would produce “tons of patents, incubators for tons of different businesses.”
“Then our college and university students get to be a part of that,” he said. “That spawns businesses. Those businesses stay here because they’re in the state. We diversify our economy in amazing ways.”
Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, also said he wants to expand the use of performance funding in the state university system, saying limited use has already produced “astounding” results.
He also urged the university board to resist the “diminishment” of liberal arts degrees while supporting the expansion of technical graduates.
Corcoran said there is a critical need for producing students who are “creative, who can critically think, who can wrestle with the great thoughts of time and synthesize large volumes of information.”
After their appearance, Corcoran and Negron downplayed differences in initial higher-education budgets, with the Senate advancing a $187 million increase in operational funding for the schools, while the House plan has a $217 million cut.
“I think we are well poised to finish on time and accomplish great things in both higher ed and K-12,” Corcoran said. “I wouldn’t read more into the budgets than that.”
Negron, who has served as a budget chairman in the House and Senate, called the differences “very manageable, expected and routine.”
And it appears the legislative leaders are continuing to work out their overall education policy, with the House backing Senate higher-education initiatives, while the Senate is in support of House kindergarten-through-high-school initiatives.
“In the school-choice policy arena, the speaker’s ideas have been transformational,” Negron said. “Anything we can do to give parents more options and to create programs to do that and fund those, count me in.”
Corcoran said he “fully supports the direction and vision” of Negron’s higher-education initiatives.
“We just have to work out the numbers and get it done,” he said.