Tuesday, August 21, 2018

What percentage of education funding should Florida’s state government provide?

The dispute could not be more stark.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Senate have pushed to allow local tax collections to rise with the increasing value of property, as a way to grow education funding. Just leaving the tax rate alone looks to generate about a half-billion dollars more for local coffers.

House leadership has steadfastly rejected the notion, not with a "no" but a "hell, no,". They contend a higher tax bill means a tax increase, even if the rate has not gone up. And they're all about decreasing taxes.

The question becomes, then, how can the Legislature and governor continue to put more money into education — as they say they want to do — with limited state resources and a cap on local revenue?

It's a lot for lawmakers to ponder as they enter the 2018 session, which starts in a week, and comes on the heels of a year where education funding disagreements led to a veto and special session.

While the courts have ruled that the constitutional requirement that the state's "paramount duty" to make "adequate provision" for a "high quality" education is too vague, that hasn't diminished the underlying matter of how much is enough.

Perhaps some reflection on the historical numbers would help.

In 1997-98, the state provided 62 percent of Florida's public education funding, just under $6.5 billion. Florida had 2.23 million students at the time, and a taxable value of $593 billion.

Since that time, the state's contribution slipped to 59 percent in 2002-3 and 52 percent in 2007-8. It began inching upward again to 55 percent by 2012-13, and 57 percent in the current fiscal year.

Over that same period of time, student population steadily rose to its current 2.83 million — a 27 percent increase — and school taxable value jumped to $1.9 trillion, up 221 percent.

The state's required local tax rate for school districts, meanwhile, dropped from $6.529 per $1,000 of taxable value in 1997-8 to the current $4.308.

What to make of all these numbers?

First, the state's education system has grown, which means added costs.

Second, the state could have relied on local tax rates to cover those expenses, if it wanted to. But it didn't go that direction.

What if it had, though, just stuck with the same level of state funding as it provided 20 years ago?

Florida's total 2017-18 education budget came in at $20.6 billion. If the state provided 62 percent, instead of 57 percent, it would have spent just over $1 billion more on education. Lawmakers could have decided to further cut local property taxes, leaving the overall total unchanged, or kept the collection steady at the budgeted $8.97 billion, boosting the bottom line.

Some lawmakers have suggested it's a matter of setting priorities. Expect to hear the debate again in the coming weeks.

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