AVON PARK - South Florida Community College student Adrianna Gaitan can relate firsthand to the importance of a bill currently moving through the Florida Senate.
The 42-year-old student from Masaya, Nicaragua, went to high school in Miami and after graduation struggled as the daughter of undocumented immigrants to pay higher tuition than legal, state residents. She said she knows of fellow students on campus in the same situations who are paying more for less opportunities.
However, the possibility of getting in-state tuition for colleges and the prospect of saving thousands of dollars for the sons and daughters of illegal immigrants to pursue a college degree is creeping forward.
March 20, the Florida House of Representatives has passed the Postsecondary Education Tuition and Fees bill (HB 851) - also known as the "Florida Dream Act." Basically, the Dream Act would grant in-state tuition rates to children of undocumented immigrants, allowing "DREAMers" access to tuition equality in Florida.
And Friday, the sponsor of a measure that would extend in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants said a majority of the Senate agreed to co-sponsor the bill (SB 1400). Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he has the paperwork from 21 members in the 40-seat chamber, forging a path for the bill to pass if it gets to the floor.
"That means we have a majority of the Senate committed to supporting that bill publicly," Latvala said, adding he believes he has 26 votes for the measure. The proposal still needs the approval of the Appropriations Committee after Easter before going to the full Senate.
Wednesday, the bill passed Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education which approved it 8-5.
If it makes it through the Senate, the bill would allow some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates, which Florida Gov. Rick Scott supports because it places limits on how much universities can raise tuition. Senate Bill 1400 has yet to have an exact date scheduled for a hearing, but needs to win the support of a total of four committees before it receives a vote on the Senate floor.
The fact it has gotten this far is welcome news to students like Gaitan, who is concerned for students still struggling with tuition. She said she hopes the Dream Act succeeds so everyone has equal access to advanced education.
"I think it's more fair. If you want something better for yourself and for your family, you need to have a career and you need to go to college to have a career," said Gaitan, who's studying to become licensed practical nurse.
In March, the proposal barely passed through the Senate Education Committee, winning a by 5-4 vote.
The House version of the bill would allow in-state tuition to students who attend a Florida high school for four consecutive years. However, within two years after graduating, they must enroll in a post-secondary institution within 24 months after graduation to get in-state tuition rates, Those students would also have to submit high school transcripts showing attendance and graduation.
Rep, Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, said Friday he couldn't speculate on the end result of the legislation and was undecided when the bill was proposed, but was one of about 40 who ended up voting in favor of the House Bill, with 36 opposing.
"It's a priority bill in its House format. I was conflicted on he bill. My reasoning was these children probably would never be deported and I'd like to see them get as good of education as we can provide them so they can get good jobs and become good taxpayers," he said from Tallahassee Friday. "In the end, I can't blame these children for the sins of their parents so I was one of the Republicans who voted in favor."
South Florida is a four-year college with currently about 2,825 students, with about 540 Hispanic students. Suzy Johnson, South Florida financial aid officer, said currently associate degree in-state tuition is $104.52 per credit hour; out-of-state is $394.31. In-state bachelor's degrees are $119.37; out-of-state is $449.78.
SB 1400 was filed Feb. 27 by Latvala and has support from Republicans and Democrats, with many citing the legislation for its fairness to many of Florida's students.
The petition website Dreamactivist.org, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., currently has a petition online to gather support for SB1400.
"SB1400 would enable students from across our state to further their education, strengthen our university system, and ensure that Florida produces graduates who are willing and able to grow our great state," the site states.
News Service of Florida contributed to this report.