A weekend interview with ...
Florida Education Association president Andy Ford. Ford talked with reporter Jeff Solochek about his group's opposition to the Jan. 29 constitutional amendment referendum on property taxes, including his thoughts on whether this fight might end up in court.
Why are you so opposed?
Florida is at a point where in nearly every national comparison we're at the bottom when it comes to funding education. And this will put another reduction into the education budget. Therefore, it's not a good idea for Florida.
I remember at one point you were talking with the governor trying to negotiate some sort of compromise. What ever happened?
We've met with the governor and we've had a very good conversation. I said unless there is a guaranteed funding stream to offset the cuts that the property tax (measure) would cause, there was no way we could support the property tax cuts.
And apparently the "hold harmless" idea has gone away, then?
Right. Hold harmless was just a discussion during the session. It hasn't appeared, although there are new numbers that reduce the cut. But there's still a cut.
Is there any sort of cut that you could see as acceptable? Maybe a level you had set?
Florida is at the bottom when it comes to funding, and that is unacceptable. When it comes to anything that further reduces funding, we cannot support it.
Now that the lines have been pretty much been drawn, they've been drawn in the middle of the holiday season. How do we keep peoples' attention focused on this issue?
I think after the last bowl game we might have the opportunity to gain peoples' attention again. But it will be about two weeks before we capture the voters' attention. As the presidential primaries gear up come January, that should probably bring attention to this amendment.
What do you tell people who are looking at this and saying, 'I pay too much in taxes'?
This reduction would not generate enough savings for you to take your family to McDonald's for dinner. And it's devastating to public schools. It just doesn't add up.
When you say 'devastating to public schools,' how would you quantify that?
What we're going to see is, there's going to have to be a reduction in programs. There's going to have to be personnel layoffs. And it's not just public schools. It's police, fire, parks, libraries. It's our whole quality of life that's in jeopardy.
The vote is on Jan. 29. If it gets passed, is there a fall back? What can you do at that point?
Then the pressure is on the Legislature to come up with funding for public schools at an adequate level that they have not provided in years, if ever.
Isn't that supposed to be provided for in the constitution, the adequate funding of public schools?
There is a constitutional amendment that lays out that we are supposed to have a high-quality public school system. Yes.
So who defines that?
Ultimately, the courts will define that.
Do you see that as ultimately heading toward the courts if it is approved?
I think the players in Tallahassee are setting everything up so there is ultimately going to have to be a challenge on the language in the constitution as it currently exists. ...
If that were to happen, would we be going back to the 1970s in some regard, when we had I call them the Robin Hood finance laws put in place?
I think what we see in Florida is a flashback to the 60s and 70s, where politicians are not doing anything more than providing lip service to the public schools in terms of funding. And we're going to have to see the voters rebel. This is not a good situation that is going on right now.
Are there other things that lawmakers could do, perhaps changing some of the restrictions placed upon the school system, in order to make the financial changes - if they were to come to pass - less burdensome?
There is just not enough funding in the education pot right now. And this would just take more out. We've got problems that we need to deal with. We need to fully implement the class-size amendment. We have to reduce the dropout rate. We've got to close the achievement gap. And we have to have competitive salaries for all school employees. And as long as those issues are still out there, I don't see how anyone with a clear conscience can vote to reduce funding for public schools.
There's been some discussion about scaling back the class-size amendment. ... Do you think this might be a pressure point to reduce that and the funding that goes with it, and then putting the money back into schools?
I think what we see is everybody is coming after the same things. The class-size amendment was a decision of the voters. The politicians have gone against the will of the voters each time they've tried to make a change. Polling that we see indicates that the class-size amendment is more popular with parents and teachers today than it was when it passed. It's time to quit complaining about what the voters want and just do it.
What if somebody would say that to you if they vote for this amendment to change the tax structure? If that's what the voters want, just do it.
I think the politicians tend to view how the voters vote in their own best interest. If it passes, we'll deal with that. But we still have investments we need to make and this is just deterring us from what we really need to be doing.