Florida Democrats peeved by last-minute higher education changes

by | Mar 16, 2022


TALLAHASSEE — Late in the 2022 legislative session, Republican lawmakers made two higher-education changes that drew criticism from Democrats, who questioned whether the issues had been properly vetted.

One of the changes tied the state university system to a controversial education bill (HB 7) that, in part, involves how race-related issues can be taught. The bill, which is awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature, is an outgrowth of the governor’s fight against critical race theory.

Under the bill, school instruction would constitute discrimination if it “compels” students to believe certain concepts. For example, instruction would be labeled discriminatory if it led people to believe that they bear “responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past” by people of the same race or sex.

The bill called for placing such restrictions on Florida’s “K-20” schools, meaning kindergarten through the state college system. But during the waning days of the session, lawmakers made an addition to a separate budget “conforming” bill (SB 2524) to also tie the restrictions to universities.

Under the conforming bill, which passed Monday, universities would be ineligible for what is known as performance funding in the subsequent fiscal year if there is “a substantiated violation” of the restrictions in HB 7 — which Republicans dubbed the Individual Freedom bill.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the change was a way to use incentive funding to enforce HB 7.

“These are additional funds that we do in our budget to incentivize and to encourage, and that is what performance pay is. And if you are not following the law, you will not be able to receive those funds,” Stargel said Friday during a budget debate.

A substantiated violation could be “determined by a court of law, a standing committee of the Legislature, or the (state university system) Board of Governors,” according to the conforming bill.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, suggested the bill did not include enough detail.

“It doesn’t talk about (the) process of substantiating that the institution violated whatever … part of the Individual Freedom bill or the entire Individual Freedom bill if it makes it into statute,” Gibson said.

HB 7 was one of the most-controversial issues of the legislative session. Critics slammed it as an attempt to stifle educators from teaching the uglier parts of American history. The bill’s supporters, meanwhile, characterized it as a way to prevent students from being told that people carry responsibility for events of the past.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, criticized the late change and told reporters Monday that “it’s not policy that we (should) sneak into a budget conforming bill” with time winding down in session.

“Basically it took a (conforming) bill, turned it on its head, and said … if you have a complaint, if you believe that a higher education institution, for example, taught history or taught racism in a way that made you feel uncomfortable in violation of the Stop WOKE Act, you can bring that complaint to a political committee of the Florida Legislature,” Smith said, referring to the Stop WOKE Act moniker that DeSantis used when he proposed similar legislation last year.

“I say political because it is made up of politicians, with Republicans in the majority,” Smith added. “That committee will then be the judge, jury and executioner on all violations of House Bill 7.”

Another late-session tweak to a higher-education bill also riled Democrats. That involved a change to the process of reviewing university professors’ tenure.

The change was introduced March 4 to a bill (SB 7044) that included issues related to accreditation of state higher-education institutions. Under the change, the Board of Governors “may adopt a regulation” that would require each tenured faculty member “to undergo a comprehensive post-tenure review every 5 years.”

Such reviews would be required to take into account faculty members’ accomplishments and productivity, duties in research, teaching and service, as well as “compensation considerations” and performance metrics.

Several Democrats argued that individual universities already perform their own tenure reviews and questioned if the measure was needed.

“This amendment, with a week to go (in session), that has not been … discussed through any committees whatsoever, seeks to have a uniform standard for all institutions of higher education?” asked Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach.

Senate bill sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, argued that several other states use similar tenure review systems.

“It is part of continuous improvement and giving the BOG (Board of Governors) the opportunity to have these reviews. Again, this is not a condition of employment,” Diaz said. “If you look at the (state) ‘Right to Know’ website and you see the salaries that are being paid to our professors, I think having accountability under performance and having feedback to them … will continue to help our university system.”

But Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, asked if the measure could “create a chilling effect” on professors who would seek tenure at state universities.

“Don’t you think that this type of amendment would have been better to be done in a committee, where we could have had public testimony and … some discussion about the efficacy of these types of programs, and had some data and analysis?” Brandes said.

“It’s always better to have more data, but it is here on the floor now,” Diaz replied.

If signed by DeSantis, both bills would go into effect in July.

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