Lawmakers deepened hole for Florida's schools, but also passed major reforms

TALLAHASSEE — For schools, the annual legislative session left in its wake a $1.1 billion funding cut — and, unlike in years past, a slew of new policy reforms to go with it.

Lawmakers slashed spending by an average of $542 per student, a cut of nearly 8 percent, steeper than the Florida House or Senate originally proposed.

And they overhauled how teachers are evaluated, paid and fired; made major changes to benefit privately-run charter and virtual schools; and expanded school voucher programs.

Gaping budget holes have overshadowed ambitious education policies before in the Legislature. But not this year.

"One of the things that we committed ourselves to — knowing that it was going to be double the work — was not to put educational policy in the back burner," said Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who helped lead two educational committees in the House. "It was probably one of the boldest sessions regarding education policy."

That's not an opinion shared by the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union. In a statement, the FEA called the session "one of the most radical and damaging in our state's history."

For the past two years, the state bolstered its Pre-K-12 education budget with nearly $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars. Legislators tried to backfill some of that hole with other money, but couldn't prevent reducing school funding to the lowest levels since 2006.

School districts across the state are already warning of painful choices they will have to make in coming months, including the possibility of unpaid employee furloughs and layoffs.

Pinellas is bracing for a budget shortfall of about $66 million. Hillsborough estimates its hole could be nearly $30 million.

"Every year, we're cut, cut, cut," lamented Georgia Slack, a lobbyist for the Broward district. "Like any piece of meat, we're down to the cartilage."

Lawmakers argue that school districts will save millions of dollars with the new requirement that teachers and other public workers contribute 3 percent of their pay toward their pension — a move that amounts to a pay cut for public employees.

The budget also assumes that districts kept their entire portion of an emergency fund the federal government awarded states last year. Florida asked districts to save the money, yet many of them used at least some of it to protect jobs.

Many districts hoped lawmakers would let them keep a property tax rate hike the Legislature allowed two years ago for school construction, maintenance and technology projects. The option was good only until this year.

They did not, saying that move would amount to a tax increase.

School districts did get a reprieve elsewhere, though: A provision tucked in the education budget will make fewer classes fall under mandatory class-size caps, easing the costs for schools to provide teachers, space and resources for smaller courses.

The change, however, was not without controversy from backers of the voter-approved, constitutional class-size requirement.

"This is a back-door way for noncompliance, which will erode the purpose of the mandate and render it basically null and void," Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, said in a statement.

On the policy front, a veto-proof Republican majority in the House and Senate flexed its muscle to push through proposals that had been too heavy to lift in previous sessions — including the teacher pay and tenure bill, vetoed last year by former Gov. Charlie Crist.

This year, it became the first bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott has also thrown his support behind moves he has said would give students more choices and foster educational innovation: allowing charter schools designated as "high-performing" to expand with less oversight from school districts, and opening the door for more companies to offer virtual classes online.

Democrats largely opposed the big-ticket changes, denouncing them as a concerted effort to weaken the traditional public school system. Charter and virtual schools are privately managed, but receive taxpayer dollars for each of their students.

Indeed, per-pupil funding for virtual schools was one of the few line-items in the education budget to get a boost. Charter schools, too, got a break: Those designated as "high-performing" will have to pay less in administrative fees to school districts.

In other policy moves, lawmakers expanded school vouchers to allow more students to leave public schools considered "failing." More kids will also be eligible for private-school vouchers for students with disabilities.

And — in a change bound to be popular — nearly 40,000 eighth- and ninth-grade students statewide who had been slated to take a standardized algebra exam will no longer have to do so if they took the course in middle school in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years.

Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com.

Lawmakers deepened hole for Florida's schools, but also passed major reforms 05/08/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 8, 2011 11:56pm]

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