Crist proposes slightly more money for schools
Florida schools can only hope it's not a mirage.
After being rocked by cut after cut over the past 17 months, they'd get a small boost in the $66.5 billion proposed state budget unveiled today by Gov. Charlie Crist. The plan would raise per-pupil spending to $7,044, up $183 from the current year but still down from its peak of $7,306 two years ago.
Crist relies heavily on the federal stimulus, using $1.8 billion of it for education. PreK-12 would get $21.8 billion under Crist's proposal. State universities would get $3.6 billion, up 5.6 percent. Community colleges would get $1.8 billion, up 8.8 percent.
But the plan's fate is far from certain. State revenues continue to drop, with some predicting next year's shortfall could top $5 billion, or $2 billion more than was expected just a few months ago. School officials are keeping their fingers crossed that the governor's numbers continue to add up.
"If we just got the same dollars per student that we have now, that would be something we could figure out how to deal with," Steve Swartzel, director of governmental services for Pinellas schools, told The Gradebook. Pinellas is preparing for another $33 million loss in core state funding next year, and "we'd love to not have to cut that money," he said.
But a lot depends on the fiscal assumptions Crist used to build his budget. District officials in Pinellas and elsewhere will be poring over the details in the days ahead.
More specifically, Crist proposed $61.7 million to maintain 10 percent bonuses for national board certified teachers, and continued funding for school recognition money at $85 per student. He recommended $369 million for VPK and $2.8 billion to reduce class sizes. Go here for more details.
Crist also announced he's backing legislation that would require school districts to spend at least 70 percent of their operating dollars in the classroom - a spinoff of the "65 percent solution" that was all the rage a few years ago, but has gone the way of disco just about everywhere but Florida.
For higher ed, Crist is proposing a 5-percent tuition hike for undergraduates, along with a measure that would give all 11 universities the ability to raise tuition. The Senate Higher Education Committee said yes to the latter today.
Key Republican lawmakers on the House and Senate education committees could not be reached for comment.
Democrats liked what they heard, to a point. House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands praised Crist for "showing courage and doing the right thing by making use of federal economic recovery funds in the state budget."
But Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson said he remained concerned by "the disconnect between the governor's optimism and the reality we face in the Legislature."
"The federal stimulus money is not a bottomless bank," he said in a statement. "Like so many Florida families have already discovered, sooner or later, the money will run out."
Read more at our sister blog The Buzz.