TALLAHASSEE — In his first State of the State address, Florida Gov. Rick Scott boldly told legislators that he has created the "most fiscally conservative state budget in the country."
Perhaps predictably, Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith offered a dramatically different take.
"Since he took office, Floridians have seen that Rick Scott only cares about imposing his rigid and extreme philosophy on our state, rather than working to implement common-sense solutions for Florida," Smith said. "Whether he is killing high-speed rail, proposing his spending plan that would lay off 20,000 teachers, or putting communities at risk by ending critical law enforcement tools to stop pill mills, Rick Scott's agenda is doing real harm to our state."
The thing that jumped out to us is the claim that Scott's budget "would lay off 20,000 teachers."
Big budget cuts
To balance the state budget as required in the Constitution, lawmakers say they must trim at least $3.62 billion from this year's $70.5 billion budget. Scott's proposal goes further — reducing the budget by $4.6 billion to $65.9 billion.
PreK-12 education funding is hardly spared as part of Scott's proposed cuts.
Scott's budget proposal for 2011-12 reduces the total amount of state preK-12 education funding from $18.2 billion to $16.5 billion — a cut of about $1.7 billion. That number includes local property taxes that the state mandates school boards collect (the required local effort), the state contribution from sales tax revenues and trust funds, and federal dollars passed through the state.
In total, Scott's budget proposals would reduce the amount of per-student funding by 10.19 percent, from about $6,900 per student to nearly $6,200 per student. (Some of that reduction could be offset for one year, Scott says, by requiring teachers to pay 5 percent of their salary toward their retirement and by using temporary federal funds given to school districts in 2010.)
Scott budget chief Jerry McDaniel has told lawmakers that the proposed budget would result in some teacher layoffs, though he did not offer a hard estimate. The budget document itself — while cutting funding — also does not explicitly say school districts should lay off 20,000 teachers.
Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff said the figure originated from a Gainesville Sun article titled "Worst-case scenario for education is 20,000 layoffs in Florida."
The article does cite the 20,000 figure, but fails to explain how it was calculated, and described it as a worst-case scenario.
Jotkoff then walked us through a scenario where nearly 30,000 teachers could be let go.
If 80 percent of education spending is for personnel costs — a figure mentioned by the Sun — that would represent $1.4 billion of the overall proposed cuts, Jotkoff said. Divide those cuts by the average salary of a teacher and that equates to the salaries of 29,973 teachers.
Jotkoff's calculation doesn't include benefits, however, so it's immediately high. Second, even if you concede that 80 percent of school district costs are for personnel, that figure includes all employees — not just teachers. So again, it's overstating things.
Moreover, estimating the number of teacher layoffs is pure speculation.
Difficult to measure
First, Scott's budget cuts funding, not teachers. Specific cuts would be left to individual school districts.
But there are also two impediments to the large-scale teacher cuts Smith says would happen.
The first is rooted in the state Constitution. In November 2002, Florida's voters approved an amendment to the Constitution that sets limits for the maximum number of students in a classroom starting with the 2010-11 school year.
The Legislature tried to loosen the restriction through a second constitutional amendment in 2010, but the amendment failed to receive the needed 60 percent of voter approval.
Since 2003, the state has spent about $16 billion to implement the amendment, mainly by hiring some 30,000 additional teachers. It would be virtually impossible to cut 20,000 teacher jobs and still comply with the constitutional mandate.
Second, in tandem with his budget, Scott wants to make school employees contribute 5 percent of their salary toward their retirement.
If that proposal were to pass, school districts wouldn't feel as drastic a cut, Scott says (a 7.36 percent cut instead of a 10.19 percent one).
In offering a rebuttal to Scott's budget message, Smith said Scott's budget plan would lay off 20,000 teachers.
Make no mistake, Scott is proposing major cuts to education funding that even Scott's budget chief acknowledges will result in layoffs.
But trying to estimate a number is tricky. That's because decisions ultimately will be made by local school districts. On top of that, the Florida Constitution requires small class sizes, and Scott also wants to mitigate some funding cuts by making school district employees contribute to their retirement.
Keeping that in mind, we rate Smith's claim Half True.