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House proposes more money for Florida schools

TALLAHASSEE — Is the tide turning for education funding?

Taking a cue from Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Dean Cannon put forth a budget proposal last week that pumps $1 billion into statewide schools spending.

The following day, Senate education leaders seem determined to top that figure.

"I hope that we can meet him and actually raise him," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on PreK-12 education appropriations. "I hope that we will be able to add $300 million to that."

The conversation, albeit early in the legislative session, stands in sharp contrast to last session, when the education budget was cut by $1.35 billion. School spending has dropped off dramatically since the economy started to tumble in 2007, forcing districts to cut back on programs and teaching positions. The state's total education funding tumbled from 2007's almost $19 billion to about $16.6 billion in 2011.

But school district officials and union leaders aren't ready to celebrate. Some question whether the $1 billion in education funding will make it into the final budget. Others say the $1 billion doesn't go far enough for Florida's schoolchildren.

"Like Gov. Rick Scott's earlier plan, this proposal puts a small bandage on the gashes inflicted with last year's budget," Florida Education Association president Andy Ford said. "We need to do better."

While the economy is showing some signs of recovery, the budget numbers are still bleak. The state is anticipating a budget shortfall of up to $2 billion.

Scott's plan is more complicated than taking $1 billion and dividing it evenly by the number of schoolchildren in Florida.

About $224 million would replace one-time revenue used to plug a hole in this year's budget. Another $220 million would offset the losses school districts are expected to face due to declining property tax collections.

What's more, about $190 million would fund the 30,500 new students expected to enroll in Florida's schools next year.

Scott's plan does double the amount each student in Florida gets for reading programs. It also increases the bonus given to schools that improve by at least one letter grade from $70 to $100 per student.

Some lawmakers see the investment as significant, especially in light of the economy.

"One billion dollars is a lot of money, considering where we've been," said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, vice chairwoman of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

Critics, however, say Scott's proposal doesn't really represent much of an increase over last year. Per-pupil spending would rise $141.64 to $6,372.04, according to figures from the governor's office.

"This is not a billion dollars of new money," said Colleen Wood, a parent activist and founder of the education advocacy group 50th No More. "Even our kindergarteners' math is better than that."

Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie, took issue with the provision to boost the award money for high-performing or improving schools.

"The schools that really need those dollars are the failing schools," Kiar said.

Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said he had concerns with part of the governor's budget that would replace $16 million in funding for some mentoring, school-improvement and college-readiness programs with $12.2 million in competitive grants. If the provision is adopted, programs that previously received funding would have to compete for dollars based on their outcomes.

"There's some merit to the idea," Bileca said. "But not every program can be evaluated based on the same metrics."

Whether the House or Senate will craft similar proposals remains to be seen.

Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, who chairs the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, said the House's priorities and the governor's "aren't far off."

"Our main focus will be the classroom," Coley said.

Getting to that point, however, may require a high-wire act.

Boosting the education allocation means cuts must be made elsewhere. Scott has suggested Medicaid reductions to the tune of $2 billion. And lawmakers have their own funding priorities.

Miami Herald staff writer Laura Figueroa contributed to this report.

House proposes more money for Florida schools 01/22/12 [Last modified: Sunday, January 22, 2012 9:26pm]
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