A weekend interview with ...
... Scott Howat, lobbyist for Orange County Schools and the president of the Florida Education Legislative Liaisons. Howat also is a member of the Seminole Community College board of trustees. Howat spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about public education legislative priorities for the spring session.
Have you had a chance to go over the legislative priorities and talk to lawmakers to see where things are headed?
We met as a group ... and talked about the budget, talked about the issues. And obviously we're hearing as bad as we could have imagined, it's going to be worse. ... The total impact to education from that standpoint is undetermined because we don't know what percentage of the total cut if there's a reduction that education will hit. We know we make up about a third of the budget, but we don't know if we'll get a proportional third or if they'll work to hold us somewhat harmless or at least target certain programs to make strategic targeted cuts.
I know the House set up an education appropriations committee, which they didn't have last year. Is that possibly a good thing?
Yeah, I noticed it in the makeup that they split out the appropriations and the policy. They also split it out into K-12, higher ed and workforce. That can be good because you're focusing on those budgets. It can also be an issue, because you have leadership that are not having to work together on one committee but are working on their own committees and then have to bring it back to the body, so to speak, for approval. So it can become somewhat territorial, vs. looking at the entire system as they did last year prior to breaking it out.
How do you approach the leadership, then, knowing you have on one hand a group looking at policy where they might approve some idea and then on the other side you have appropriations where they might say there's no money for that idea?
Pretty much the policy they had last year was any bill that has fiscal impact tied to it would not be a priority. They would only be looking at policy changes that don't have a fiscal impact. Now a lot of people argue that certain things that they say don't have a fiscal impact do, and ultimately any type of new program or any existing program that's looking to be expanded if they're not funding it and they're not saying that it will cost more to the districts to do something like that, the reality may be it might cost us more.
That's why a lot of what we were looking at ... is hey, we need to focus on our core mission, which is to educate all children, and to keep as much money in the classroom as possible. To look at any new programs that are looking to come on board or just recently came on board, to hold those in abeyance or keep them where they are vs. expanding them. Because any expansion, like for example middle school P.E., we're mandated to implement that next year for middle schoolers. Well, in a year when the budget is going to be as bad as we've ever seen it, it's going to be difficult to implement a new program and not say that it's going to have a fiscal impact. ... Yes, it's important. It's a good thing to have. But do you want to sacrifice your core mission and your core objective of reading, writing and math, in order to do a P.E. program for sixth through eighth grade?
So what you're saying is, do no harm.
What we're looking for is flexibility in a larger percentage of the pie. We know our percentage is shrinking, our piece is shrinking, but we're looking for more flexibility within that shrinking pie. Because that actually can help us stretch the dollars. So we're looking for flexibility, we're looking for no new programs or new mandates that cause us to have to reapportion portions of our pie, and to make it so we can focus those resources on the classroom and get them where the students are. ...
What about the class-size amendment? How does that play?
Short term they can always do what they did last year and delay it for another year, say we only have to be at a school-wide average for next year and then look at it again in 2010-11. The problem with that is in 2010-11 the constitutional amendment kicks in and it's not going to do any good for any more than one year to delay the implementation without penalty. What we could be asking for is, in this tough time, lessen the penalty, maybe give us school-wide average plus a student or two so we can make it through this year. And then maybe long term look at a constitutional revision on that law, maybe holding it at school-wide average rather than going to classroom by classroom, which is draconian ... and could break the bank for the state of Florida.
Have you found someone to carry water for that?
Not yet. I mean obviously, when it's an off-election year and you're looking at doing a constitutional, do you do it in '10? Do you do it in '09 with a special election? There's a lot of things. I think the more the realities of the budget sink in, and looking at the price tag of what class-size is, there's going to be a point where everyone just has to understand. Do we do it this year? Do we delay it to next year? How do we get the unions on board? Because the unions need to be part of that conversation, because they were very much in favor of the class-size amendment and still are. But if it's going to cost teachers jobs, specifically in fields like P.E. and art and music and areas that are not core areas, and it's going to cause them not to get raises and other things, it's going to have to be looked at. ...
What else do we need to be looking for this session?
The focus on this is going to be budget, budget, budget and how can we stretch the dollars the most. Where can we go if we need to make cuts? Where can we target the cuts the least impact the students first and our workforce second. Because the worst thing you can do in a bad economy is lay people off. So what in education can we do to go after those dollars that are left and target those that maybe are good programs, solid programs, but they don't directly affect student achievement or the classroom. Half of the lottery money goes to school recognition. That's a large chunk of money from the state that could potentially be cut or be moved over to actual discretionary lottery money to offset any other cut. ...
You're looking at specific programs like that, that are great programs ... but when the economy is as bad as it is, you have to focus on your core mission, which is making sure every student in the state of Florida is given the same education as every other student in the state of Florida, equitable and adequately funded.
Do you see any issue with the adequate funding? I was talking with Wayne Blanton and he was suggesting there was likely a lawsuit coming on the funding issue, pretty soon.
I've heard that too. ... I don't see an issue. It depends how far they go this session. You know, adequacy, obviously the more you cut into the base student funding, the more the issue of adequacy. If you look at the trends, our trend line over the past 10 years, they funded us to the level of the consumer price index or the level of inflation. That was including the class size, but they leveled us to that point. That was until they started holding back and then cutting over the last year and a half. Over that year it's actually been a decline from where our students are funded vs. the consumer price index. When you see that trend happening, you can start to make an argument whether education is being adequately funded. ...
Then it goes to, have they funded class size? Can they make the argument that they have funded class size? A lot of districts would say no, they can't. But they would make the argument that they have since 2003.
I have heard that some lawmakers are interested in finding out whether districts are spending their class-size money on class size. Have you heard anything about that?
Yeah, I've heard that. But it's clear that the provision in the law says that as long as you met the class-size requirement at that stage of class size, you could then use the money for other things. And obviously districts used the money for teacher pay raises and other things, which helps you in class size as well, because you have to retain your teachers, too. You can't hold them at 2002 pay levels and expect them to still be around in 2010. ... I know that's going to be an argument that they're going to look at. They're going to look at school districts that are giving raises this year, I'm sure. ...
It's tough because it's not just the pressures of the budget. You're dealing with your unions, the work force, your teachers. And everyone is struggling. It's a delicate balance between your teachers and your parents and your students and trying to maintain that all and do it with significantly reduced revenue over the last year and a half that none of us planned for or even saw coming.