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Monday, February 26, 2024

Children of fallen soldiers don't get tuition breaks under Florida's constitution. A new proposal could change that.

<p><span>Photographs of members in uniform and in the field are displayed on the walls of the Collegiate Veterans Success Center.</span></p>

Photographs of members in uniform and in the field are displayed on the walls of the Collegiate Veterans Success Center.

If Spencer Baker died on duty as an active commander in the U.S. Navy, with five children and as the sole-income earner, his family would suffer deep emotional and financial hardships.

So when his eldest son, UF student Reilly Baker realized his tuition wouldn’t be compensated by the state if something happened to his father while serving, he was shocked.

But now, Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission, a group that meets every 20 years to examine the Florida Constitution and propose measures to be put on the 2018 ballot, is considering a proposal that would provide free tuition to families, like the Bakers, of fallen military members, law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics and emergency-medical technicians.

“I was a little bit taken back that it wasn’t something already covered,” Baker said. “I guess I already assumed that college being paid for was under (the GI Bill) umbrella.”

Gov. Rick Scott discussed his full support of the measure during his final State of the State Address on Tuesday.

“These brave men and women died as heroes and it is important that the state does everything possible to take care of the families who lost a loved one who was working to protect our communities,” Scott said. “When you think about it, it’s the least we can do.”

The proposal was filed in October by Commissioner Emery Gainey, who is director of the Law Enforcement Relations, Victim Services and Criminal Justice Programs for the Office of the Attorney General, according to the commission’s website. He also is a 25-year veteran of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.

Gainey said law enforcement, correctional and correctional probation officers’ families tution are already covered by Florida statutes in case of death while on duty. The goal of his proposal is to cover them and add EMTs, paramedics and Florida military members in Florida’s constitution, which is more difficult to change than statues.

The benefits provided to a child affected by this will be able to receive the benefits until his or hers 25th birthday, Gainey said.

"If their father or mother was killed in the line of duty, the chances of them going to college has been reduced substantially," he said.

Baker, a UF business management freshman, is the only one of his siblings to hit college age so far but sending all five to public state universities would be costly without his father’s salary.

“On top of dealing with the emotional trauma with losing something, we would also have to deal with the financial burden,” the 18-year-old said. “It would definitely be a load off of something tragic and very hard to deal with.”

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UF does not keep track of how many students come from military or first-responder families, UF spokesperson Margot Winick wrote in an email.

“We all like the idea of helping students,” Winick said. “We appreciate the Governor and Legislature wanting to keep college affordable while still investing in preeminence and academic excellence.”

Military and law enforcement families are holding their breaths for the proposal to pass. Gainesville Police spokesperson Officer Ben Tobias serves many roles in the law enforcement community including president of the Florida Law Enforcement Public Information Officers Association, which allows him to speak with many officers across the state.

Many parents put on the uniform for work every day, Tobias said. They come in knowing they might not go home that day, but most have a plan in case of that tragedy. 

Even though law enforcement officers are covered by Florida statutes, statutes are malleable by legislators. Adding the proposal to the state’s constitution would be more foundational.

“It’s just got to be a blessing in disguise to have that taken care of,” he said.

The department’s most recent loss of an officer while on duty was Lt. Corey Dahlem, who died April 4, 2007 in the hospital 19 hours after a drunk driver hit him while on foot patrol, according to Alligator archives. He was survived by his wife and two young-adult children, at the time.

“Thankfully, these truly tragic instances don’t happen as much as they possibly could,” Tobias said. “It’s one of those jobs that you sign up to do because you care.”

Correction: A quote from Ofc. Ben Tobias that was previously stated in the story incorrectly stated, “Something like this doesn’t exist at all, so any starting point is great.” Similar Florida statutes do stand that provide free tuition to the children and spouses of fallen law enforcement, correctional and correctional probation officers.

Contact Paige Fry at pfry@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter at @paigexfry.

Photographs of members in uniform and in the field are displayed on the walls of the Collegiate Veterans Success Center.

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