CLEARWATER — Dulce Jimenez has to hustle from one clothing store in Countryside Mall to another, attending class and squeezing in homework while juggling her two jobs.
She puts in the long hours in order to reach her goal of becoming a nurse. Because both of her parents are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Jimenez — who has lived here for 12 of her 20 years — is forced to pay out-of-state tuition for the program at St. Petersburg College.
“I have worked hard all my life,” Jimenez said. “I don’t see why students with excellent academic success should have to be punished and pay more for wanting to learn.”
Her situation could change if a bill submitted for the upcoming legislative session passes and wins Gov. Rick Scott’s blessing. On Wednesday, two Clearwater lawmakers introduced a measure that gathers several tuition-related issues into a single piece of legislation, including a provision that would allow in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants.
The difference can be significant. Resident tuition and fees at the University of South Florida’s main campus were $6,410 for a full-time student in the fall of 2013 while nonresidents paid $17,324.
At St. Petersburg College, out-of-state students pay $383 per credit hour in lower-division courses and $422 for higher-division; residents pay $108 and $119, respectively.
Nursing isn’t Jimenez’s dream occupation.
“I wanted to be an emergency physician,” she said. “I was willing to put in the time and effort to become a doctor, but because of the cost of out-of-state tuition, it would have been a ridiculous amount of money.”
State Sen. Jack Latvala and state Rep. Ed Hooper, both Republicans, said there’s something wrong with that situation.
“In good conscience, there is no reason in the world why parents’ immigration status ought to be the determining factor of the tuition that our people pay,” Latvala said at a Wednesday news conference at St. Petersburg College’s Clearwater campus.
“In this particular case, these children are the children of taxpayers in Florida who pay our sales taxes, who pay our gas taxes, and who pay many other taxes. I just think this is a disparity, and a discriminatory issue that needs to go away.”
Hooper said the state is required to educate all children, whether they are here legally or illegally.
“Yet after a lot of these young adults move through high school, we choose to treat them like they are no longer Floridians,” he said. “And that’s wrong.”
A bill addressing the issue independently has split the Legislature. House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, is an ardent supporter, while Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville, objects. Scott has said only that he would consider the matter.
That’s where politics may come into play. The bill filed by Latvala and Hooper rounds up a series of tuition-related issues, some popular across the aisles and chambers, some pet issues for Scott.
“What I intended to do is put the concepts together in a package that hopefully will make it attractive and get enough support all the way through the process and get the signature of the governor at the end,” Latvala said.
Here are highlights from the bill:
♦ Allow veterans and reservists who have been honorably discharged and who live in Florida to pay in-state tuition rates. This provision has widespread support.
♦ Eliminate a required inflation adjustment for all students whenever the Legislature or governor keeps tuition flat from year-to-year. Scott had urged universities unsuccessfully to forego the inflation increase last year, and has vowed again this year that there would be no tuition increase.
♦ Prohibit any university board of trustees from creating or increasing the tuition differential – the amount an individual university can tack onto the Legislature’s base tuition to meet its needs. The governor’s office is pushing this provision.
USF’s communication office issued a statement Wednesday saying the university would review and assess any possible impact. But a prohibition on increasing its tuition differential isn’t likely to be welcomed at a school where undergraduate base and differential tuition jumped 15 percent in 2010-11, another 15 percent in 2011-12, and 11 percent in 2012-13.
Latvala said his bill is “starting at zero,” but lawmakers may be able to “compromise that out.” Another bill caps any combined increase at 6 percent a year, down from 15 percent in current state law.
The in-state tuition provision of the bill provided hope to Celeste Pioquinto, 17, who is graduating from Clearwater High School and St. Petersburg College’s Early College Program this spring. Her parents are undocumented.
“Ever since elementary school, I dreamed about going to college,” she said. “Now, instead of dreaming it, I’m preparing for it.”
How to sound off
The tuition bill, which had not been assigned a number late Wednesday, would allow undocumented immigrants and children of military veterans to pay in-state tuition rates. It addresses other tuition issues, as well.
Sponsors are Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, (850) 487-5020, and Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, (850) 717-5067. To find and contact your senator or representative, visit www.leg.state.fl.us/ You’ll also find helpful tips at the Information Center there.