Florida House education budget keeps controversial programs as 'high priority'
Following directions to propose millions of dollars in education spending cuts, Florida House PreK-12 Appropriations chairman Rep. Manny Diaz told his committee members Thursday that no program should be considered sacred.
"If we're not making people uncomfortable, then we're not doing what we were sent up here to do," said Diaz, a Hialeah Republican.
He cautioned members, however, that the base budget "drivers" would remain essentially off limits, making the cutting exercise more difficult.
On that "high priority" list -- right alongside increased per-student funds and the voluntary prekindergarten program -- were Florida's Best and Brightest teacher bonus, which to date has been annual budget proviso language rather than statute, and money for district-wide mandatory K-8 student uniforms, placed into law a year ago.
Deeper within the committee's base budget review documents, the student attire program (which districts may choose to participate in) is slated as a $14 million item, up from $3.75 million in 2015-16. The Best and Brightest is shown as a $13.95 million item, down from $48 million a year ago.
The House has been the primary base of support for the controversial Best and Brightest, which rewards teachers based on their performance evaluations and college entrance exam scores. But the bonus has faced increasing opposition, even beyond the educators who have ridiculed its criteria as a poor indicator of teaching excellence.
In recent months, the Florida Board of Education prominently called for finding different ways to financially reward top educators and attract strong students into the profession.
The House documents suggest that new ideas could be in the offing, with the bonus program shrinking -- but not going away entirely -- as a result. After all, despite their disdain, teachers have applied for the money in growing numbers.
PreK-12 Appropriations members said they would take a close look at all items as they look for possible cuts. Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said he prefers smaller government and was "excited" to eliminate spending where possible.
Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia, encouraged his colleagues to "really be focused on what is going to produce results for students" and cut other areas.
Democrats including Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, meanwhile hinted at their intention to look at spending on charter schools and questioned why school districts shouldn't be allowed to increase their local property taxes.
Diaz stressed that cutting was the order of the day.
"I encourage us to be bold," Diaz added. "Because it has been that way doesn't mean it has to stay that way. ... Let's break the mold. That's what we're here for."