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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

On Thursday, a Leon County circuit court judge tossed out a lawsuit intended to clarify who has the right to control tuition - the state Legislature or the Board of Governors, the governing body of Florida?s public universities.

State Senate President Ken Pruitt, a Republican from Port St. Lucie, declared the judge?s ruling - or lack thereof - "a victory for students and their families."

We don?t.

When the board was created by a voter referendum in 2002, the language in the amendment was ambiguous about the board?s powers.

Since then, board members and lawmakers have gone back and forth on tuition. The matter culminated last year, when the board and the Legislature independently raised tuition by 5 percent.

What if one had raised tuition by 10 percent and the other by 5 percent?

The judge, Charles Francis, left it open for the board - which joined former Gov. Bob Graham in the lawsuit - to try again by early next month by proving the board has standing in the case.

We?re not sure if the board figured its standing would be obvious to Francis or if Francis just wasn?t paying attention.

In any event, the plaintiffs have indicated they plan to submit the evidence Francis requested, so eventually, we hope, he will take up the case.

And when he does, we hope he will keep this in mind:

Under the Legislature?s control, tuition in Florida has sunk to the bottom of the barrel compared with other states.

So while Tallahassee lawmakers enjoy the good public relations of being able to tout affordable higher education, the state?s two most important institutions - UF and Florida State University - are in self-imposed hiring freezes.

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Compounding the issue are budget cuts for the state?s universities from - guess who - the Legislature.

Don?t get us wrong. Affordable college is a great thing, and we?ve been skeptical in the past when UF officials and others wanted to jack up tuition.

But by keeping tuition so low, the Legislature has made it virtually impossible for UF - and the rest of Florida?s universities - to keep up with its peers.

In a 2006 USA Today survey of tuition rates at flagship universities in all 50 states, UF came in at 75. Who came in at No. 74? FSU.

UF can?t maintain it?s top-20 public university status with tuition that low. And a top-20 public university is critical to this state for so many reasons.

A crucial one: a top-tier university keeps top-tier high school graduates in the state.

In turn, their money - and intelligence - stays in the state. See how this works, Legislature?

We applaud our lawmakers for implementing a plan that would allow UF, FSU and the University of South Florida to raise tuiton by 40 percent over the next three years.

They?ve finally acknowledged that all of the State University System?s institutions don?t serve the same purpose. (Florida International University doesn?t need the funding UF does, so it shouldn?t charge the same rate. Pretty cut-and-dry.)

But we?re not sure that lawmakers have caught on.

That?s why Francis, when he finally takes this case, should side with the Board of Governors and Graham.

They understand what the universities need, not only to survive but to thrive.

And, as UF President Bernie Machen would be quick to tell you, it?s hard to even survive by scraping the bottom of the barrel.

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