TALLAHASSEE — As lawmakers hash out how steep the cuts to the state's education budget will be next year, hundreds of students descended on the Capitol on Thursday to have their say.
The students — most of them high schoolers from Miami-Dade County — came as part of the Florida PTA's third annual "Rally in Tally," a protest decrying decreased public school funding.
Panels in the Florida House and Senate are considering shrinking per-student funding, the principal source of money for school districts based on their student population — though by less than the 10 percent cut Gov. Rick Scott proposed in his budget. The state faces a $3.75 billion shortfall.
For education, the House is looking at a nearly 7 percent cut, while the Senate cut is smaller. Both chambers will eventually have to come to an agreement.
The two sides are also calling for a slew of cuts to other portions of the schools budget, including mentoring and autism programs, textbooks and New World School of the Arts in downtown Miami, the only public high school in the state to have its own line-item on the budget.
The rally took place the same day Gov. Scott visited a charter school in Jacksonville to sign the teacher merit pay bill (SB 736) into law. The bill ties teacher pay to student performance.
Students packed a Senate education budget committee meeting Thursday morning, where they listened to members argue that even though they plan to decrease the per-student funding measure, they are mostly protecting schools from the budget ax.
"It essentially provides level funding," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, the committee's chairman.
The Senate plan calls for a 6.26 percent cut to per-student funding, but that number is inflated. The real number is closer to 2.28 percent.
The higher number includes some $678 million in state funding the school districts will lose if, as expected, public employees are required to contribute a portion of their pay toward their pension. But districts will also have a proportionate drop in expenses, since they won't have to pay as much for employees' pensions.
Still, a cut is a cut, and kids feel it inside and outside the classroom, the students and their teachers said after the meeting.
"They want all these clubs that don't exist," Michael Jon Littman, a government teacher at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School in West Miami-Dade, said of his students.
One of them, Johanna Chovert, said she and her classmates didn't sign up for virtual school but have still had to take courses online because brick-and-mortar schools don't have enough teachers or resources. She took physical education online.
"They tell you, go run," said Johanna, an 18-year-old senior. "Obviously, people don't do it. Then they click, done."
The Braddock students, who drove to Tallahassee overnight on a bus, were not convinced by Simmons' reminder that a report last year by Education Week ranked Florida's public school system fifth in the nation. But Florida also scored low on school spending, said Christina Perez, an 18-year-old senior.
"I would have told him, senator, check your statistics," she said later. "And maybe come into our schools."
After the meeting, students roamed the halls looking for lawmakers, and met with Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and several current and former School Board members, before gathering on the steps of the Capitol for the rally.
There, several hundred students, teachers and parents chanted "No more cuts!" and waved signs that read, "Budget cuts cripple learning gains" and "Don't balance the budget on the backs of children!"
Most protesters hailed from Miami-Dade's high schools. The reason: Miami-Dade is the largest school district in the state, and has some of the neediest student populations, said Rep. Dwight Bullard, a South Dade Democrat.
"They're the ones who are going to be most affected," said Bullard, a former high school teacher. "It's important for them to be here."
Carvalho said he has been in the state capital since Tuesday urging lawmakers to slash administrative education funds before touching dollars that directly affect students. He told the crowd at the rally that Florida is "at a crossroads."
"It is time to realize that education cuts do not heal," he said. "We have an opportunity to stand tall and speak loud."
Patricia Mazzei can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.