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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with Florida Board of Education vice chairman Roberto Martinez



martinez.jpgFor several years, Florida leaders have had to balance budgets with declining revenue. They have said they want to keep education as a top priority, but that hasn't been easy amid competing demands. Through it all, in-depth philosophical conversations on the topic have been limited. State Board of Education vice chairman Roberto Martinez wants to start a public discussion on school funding as lawmakers prepare for their 2012 session. If there's one goal he has in mind, it's to move away from threats of lawsuits to a more measured effort to reach consensus on this critical matter. Martinez spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his desires and his rationale for calling for a board workshop on the issue, which will take place Tuesday in Tampa.  

I want to know how you see the issue of school finances playing out in the coming years, given all the things we have been seeing, and what you hope to accomplish with this workshop.

I am hoping to to accomplish a number of things. I would like this meeting to be a start for our state to have an honest and public conversation about funding for education. I think we have to look at this in context of the current situation. That is, the economy is not doing well and is likely to recover very slowly. I don't believe we are going to get any new taxes, and I don't support any. The only type of new taxpayer funding that we're going to be getting ... will be with increased economic activity. That will be relatively slowly. We're not going to be getting a lot of new monies over the next couple of years. So I really believe it's going to be taking what we've got and using it as best needed. And that requires the state to prioritize its needs. So it's a matter of making it a priority.

That's a difficult thing to do, because there are a number of worthwhile services and programs that I believe should be supported with taxpayer funds. But we'll never have enough money to support them all. So we've got to make a decision. And I believe that education should be the state's highest priority for a variety of reasons, probably the most important for me based upon how I've seen it help my own family. If you educate people you are giving them an opportunity to be self-sufficient. If you do that, it becomes less a strain on the community and the state. So it just makes sense that what we should do is help develop our people so they can be productive and self-sufficient and law-abiding. That for me is the key for it all. 

What services should we not pay for?

I'm not the politician. They're going to have to figure out what is less important. And some people are not going to be happy. And some services are not going to be funded. But we have to make those tough choices. Unfortunately, we have the balanced budget requirement in Florida. But otherwise we're going to get into the mess we're in federally. We can't be all things to all people. So we have to make some tough decisions. And my opinion is education is the highest priority. Regardless of what I think, the people, in the constitution, have made it the paramount duty of the state to adequately fund a high quality education. So that is now enshrined in our constitution through the peoples' decision. ... It's a constitutional mandate to be met by the elected officials. There have been a number of lawsuits through the years to get the court's involvement in getting more funding for public education. I think that is a huge mistake. I do not support that. It is terrible public policy. It will be horrible if it ever gets to that stage, for a variety of reasons. Imagine one judge, sitting someplace, directing the educational programs, micromanaging them, in 67 districts, and also setting it for the state. It cannot be done. It will be a disaster, policy-wise. And I think it would also encroach on the separation of powers. We're talking about appropriations. We're about budgeting. We're talking about the power to tax. And that should not be done by the judiciary. ...

So what I'm hoping is that this forum -- and we're a constitutional body that makes recommendations to the Legislature and to the governor -- I'm hoping that this forum can be useful in jump starting a very important conversation so that the people of Florida can give their elected officials more input, and the elected officials can become very much involved in the public discussion as to how do we prioritize our resources? What should suffer, because we can't be all things to all people? And, if we should prioritize more funding to education, is this supported by the people? How should we do it? What should get cut? I think we need to have that discussion.

Are you talking about setting priorities within the education budget as well as within the general budget?

Both. Absolutely. We need to do that, of course. We need to fund productive services and programs. Florida has done a lot in the last ten years to make sure that we measure performance, that we are outcomes oriented, which is good. I do not support just more funding for education. I want to make that clear. I do not support just more funding for education. That would be irresponsible. The same way I don't support just more funding for my business. It's how we use that funding that is key. And I think Florida is very good about being very frugal, being very careful as to how it uses its funding for education. I do think we have a lot of good programs in place, good services in place, that could be better funded, that could be more fully funded, and that could make us more productive and that would help our kids be better educated. So I'm hoping to see that happen. We need to have this serious conversation.

A lot of people on the left say just throw more money at the problem. They don't use those words, but that's essentially what they are saying. Terrible idea. Or they're saying, let's get the judiciary involved to force the Legislature to appropriate more funds for education and direct how it should be used. Horrible idea. On the right, you hear a lot of people who don't even want to talk about more funding because they think that will necessarily mean tax increases. I don't support that. ... Or, they are silenced by the need to talk about funding because they feel if they say anyting about funding, that will be used in an adequacy lawsuit against the state. I think everybody needs to rise above all that. We're much more sophisticated. There is a great need to have this discussion, and to have it publicly.

What about the concerns that many people have raised that all the money that is going into education is going into non-public education, or their version of non-public education -- the charters, the vouchers, the things that aren't really the schools as we thought of them until very recently?

Again, I think we should avoid those types of simplistic statements from the left or right. I support choice. I support charter schools. I support the use of vouchers. I have children in private schools. I have a child in public schools. ... I think we should have choices, but good choices. Just because something is a charter or private school, that label doesn't make it good. And that needs to be clear. It is to me. It should be to many. There is no magic to that label. ... I think we need to look at all this stuff in a very in-depth, sophisticated manner, as we Floridians are capable of doing.

You're bringing in a ton of people who all are pretty smart people. How are you going to get something good out of all this without it turning into just a lot of talking.

That's a good question. What I am hoping, and I've spoken with a lot of these folks, I have asked them to say whatever they want. I have told them to be objective for high quality education for all of our students. To talk about what they would hope aspirationally to happen, and also to tell us what may be accomplished in a more realistic time frame. There is a scarcity of resources available. ... In order to make their suggestions bear fruit some time relatively soon, just tell us how we get there. ... I would hope that at the end of the day what we would have is some instructions to our staff to turn some of these suggestions into a recommended budget for this year, but then also to start talking about how we implement some of these things over time. This is just a start. For me, it's a first step.

I don't mean to suggest that in the past the department and the board haven't taken this job seriously when it comes to the budget. But I haven't been in my 6-1/2 years involved in an in-depth discussion of the budget, looking at it two ways -- is Florida allocating enough money for education, and really talking about that openly? We've never really had that conversation. ... So I think we need to have it. Are we allocating enough funds to education? If we're not, should we? And should we allocate within the allocation differently? Should we direct our funds differently that we have in the past? the board that I am on is very independent minded, very experienced. ... We're having to address this some really smart people who run organizations -- college presidents, superintendents. We have deep thinkers, but also deep thinkers who have had to deal with the practicality of running an educational institution.

Do you think that this is the start of the State Board being more assertive with the Legislature? Will there be a change in the relationships?

The answer to that question is no. It is not for us to be more assertive with the Legislature. I am not an elected official. I do not have the power to tax or to appropriate. So I respect my role and I respect their role and I am not trying to step into their shoes. I think we should be engaged in this process throughout the year, not just once a year, and I think we should be more engaged in having conversations with the Legislature about the budget process than just a few times a year or here or there, scattered. I think it should be more ongoing. And you know what? I have spoken with some folks, some former legislators. And I think they would appreciate getting the Board of Education being more actively involved in getting recommendations to them. They look to us for our professional guidance. ... I think they would also want it from us in a way that also deals with the realities of the economy. For example, if we all of a sudden start making recommendations that obviously deal with completely pie in the sky situations, we lose credibility. But I think that if we say, "Look, we don't have enough funds, but over time, if we have the ability, this is what we would suggest in order to reach world-class education for every child, which is what we all feel needs to be accomplished," I think they would respect that.

Well, I know when it came to some of the policy things, you would say what you think and they would do what they want and then you would have to deal with it afterward.

They're the elected officials. But I will tell you, it's give and take. At the beginning of this legislative session, Senate president Haridopolous invited me to speak to Sen. Wise's committee (Education Pre-K-12), and I was the first speaker. And I spoke about the need to have a teacher bill. I invited Eric Smith and Patricia Levesque and the three of us spoke. They heard us. We were encouraging a teacher bill that was very much along the lines of the memorandum of understanding for Race to the Top. We wanted a bill, and we also didn't want a bill that was just SB 6 tweaked. We wanted something that built upon the Race to the Top memorandum. And that's what came out. ... There was a lot of dialogue. Eric Smith was terrific in working with the Legislature in a very cooperative manner. Very respectful. So they heard us with regards to that. They've heard us with respect to many things....

Well, I can't wait to hear what you all come up with. 

What I am hoping is that this is a meaningful start in this next phase in the issue of education funding. ... I am saying that because I want to be careful in not falsely raising expectations that cannot be met. I think we will have recommendations that will come out of this. Some will be short-term. Some will be to be implemented over time. If one of the things that it accomplishes ... is that it will get people to start talking about this in an intelligent manner, I think that's very helpful. I want to get us away from the notion that this has to be decided in a courtroom. Horrible law, horrible policy, horrible practice. I just want to get us away from that. For the people who say we need more funding, that is not the solution. For those who say they don't want to talk about it because it will encourage more taxes, well, that's just not the way to do this. We need to talk about what is really needed to help our kids, and then deal with the realities of prioritizing our resources. ... The more people who are involved ... the better our kids are going to be.

[Last modified: Saturday, July 30, 2011 3:23pm]


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