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House amends immigrant tuition bill in advance of floor vote

A bill that would extend in-state tuition rates to undocumented students (HB 851) is up for a vote in the Florida House on Thursday.

But the bill looks different now, after lawmakers approved substantial changes late Wednesday.

The amendement, proposed by Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, of Miami, was intended to make the House version of the proposal more like the Senate version.

Since the amendment was approved, the bill no longer allows undocumented students to be classified as "residents for tuition purposes." Instead, undocumented students would be able to receive partial tuition waivers that would enable them to pay the same rates as Florida residents.

The adjustment was important to members of the Senate, who wanted to ensure that undocumented students would not be eligible for state-funded scholarships and other benefits outside of the education system.

Nuñez's amendment also makes it clear that undocumented students would be counted as out-of-state students. She said the provision would prevent undocumented students from displacing Florida residents. (Florida universities are required to have a certain balance of in-state students to out-of-state students.)

But a third provision in the amendment infuriated some Democrats: language requiring students to complete four consecutive years of secondary schooling in Florida.

The original version of the bill only called for three years.

During a brief debate, some democrats said the four-year rule was too limiting and might discourage some accelerated students from graduating from high school in three years. Others questioned why students who earned GEDs would not be eligible for in-state tuition. 

"The amendment weakens the overall bill," said Rep. Mark Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat. "We’re walking back from the original bill that was filed. That would have been very, very beneficial to so many people out there who really just want an education. I think for a 12-month difference, it’s really pathetic."

Nuñez insisted the amendment would not water down the proposal.

"This has been a bill a long time in the making," she said. "For people to say this is pathetic and that we are not going to help a vast majority of students is very sad."