I spent a significant amount of time yesterday with a group of community college students from around the state in an attempt to lobby legislators on several issues of interest for our schools. Several legislators, including Minority Whip Frederica Wilson (D) and Sen. Lee Constantine (R) met with us. Wilson was great and really knew her audience and spoke appropriately. It was hard for anyone in the room to have a problem with her, since she was on our side on all the issues of relevance.
Constantine, on the other hand, had his problems. He began his address by telling us that he didn’t even know why he was talking to us and what he was going to say. Not a good start. We wanted to talk to him because he is the sponsor behind a bill that we strongly oppose. This bill would increase the amount of tuition that students would pay if they took more than 120% of the hours needed to obtain their degree. We oppose this bill for several reasons, but the biggest is that this would disproportionately affect community college students negatively. A student in a community college often does not know what they want to major in and does not know what types of classes and subjects are best for them until they have experimented and figured it out by taking classes in different areas. While the bill does include a number of exemptions that clear up some of the issues that concern us, this is not one of those that is addressed and Constantine admitted the same.
But that wasn’t the biggest problem he had, though, it was his attitude and disdain for students that bothered most. He did little to prepare for the speech and seemed not to even understand who he was talking to. He kept referring to the typical limit for the bill for university students — 24 additional credit hours — even though it didn’t apply to the students in the room or to those students who our group represented. As AA/AS degree students, the correct number for our audience would’ve been 12 credit hours, but Constantine didn’t seem to get that.
In the back of the room two students quietly held up signs saying they opposed the bill and he quickly admonished them, telling them “they didn’t know what they were talking about.” He also continually berated anyone that asked a question or questioned the proposal, saying they hadn’t read the bill. In all fairness, people with doctoral degrees often can’t understand the twists and turns of the language that are included in a legislative proposal, much less students who have yet to earn any degree. He did admit that our college presidents had read the bill, but then he summarily said they all got it wrong and misunderstood it with little evidence to back up such a claim.
He talked fast — sometimes too fast to understand — and repeatedly told us how little time he had to be with us (even though he arrived late). He failed to answer some of the important questions he was asked — like what the statistics were that said that we even had a problem that this bill would address — He was combative with students and after he walked outside, he berated his staff for even bringing him to our meeting.
The biggest problem, of course, was his misdirection on the real intent behind the bill. He suggested that the purpose behind the proposal was to increase access to college in Florida by kicking out students who were staying in school too long. That may have some legitimacy if we talk about universities (although he provided us with no info to know if that is true and avoided answering the question altogether), but it has absolutely no validity for community colleges. Everyone who applies to our schools gets in (as long as they do the paperwork and pay the fees) and few, if any, of our schools are facing overcrowding problems. And if they are, wouldn’t the better solution be to increase funding for buildings and teachers, not to kick students out of school? Personally, I think anyone who is taking classes successfully should be allowed to keep taking them as long as they want, even if they don’t get a degree and even though this costs the state money. In the long run, our communities always gain more by increasing the education and knowledge of our citizens, regardless of what a piece of paper says. The real reason behind this bill is to cut money out of the budget and Constantine wants to target the community colleges because they are the most vulnerable and least-represented constituency in Tallahassee. Shame on him for targeting us and shame on him for his dismissive attitude towards the 1.1 million community college students in Florida.