Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Tampa Bay school districts pass on teacher debit cards

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott pitched the idea from the Panhandle to Miami: a state-funded debit card worth $250 for every teacher to spend on classroom supplies.

But with the start of school just days away, only seven of the state's 67 school districts — and none in Tampa Bay — have taken Scott up on the offer.

The reason?

The debit cards won't be distributed until mid or late September, well after Florida schoolchildren have returned to the classroom. Many teachers have already purchased their supplies.

"If they could have had the cards at the beginning of the school year, or even a few weeks before, it might have made more sense," said Nadine Drew, a spokeswoman for the Broward school system, which initially agreed to participate in the program but later withdrew.

Teachers will still get their $250 for classroom supplies from the state. But the money will come through their paychecks or in a separate check from their school district.

The debit card initiative was part of Scott's broader education package, which included pay raises for teachers and a $1 billion increase to K-12 funding. He got the idea while touring schools across the state, he said.

"We know that teachers have to spend money out of their own pockets," Scott told the Times/Herald Tuesday, noting that Florida's 170,000 teachers typically spend several hundred dollars on supplies. "If they are going to spend money out of their pockets, let's try to make it easier for them."

The concept wasn't entirely new.

Florida has given teachers a supply stipend since 1998, when lawmakers created the Teachers Lead program. Each teacher received about $180 for the 2012-13 school year, according to the state Department of Education. School systems pumped the money directly into their teachers' paychecks or reimbursed teachers.

Scott pushed to increase the stipend to $250 per teacher, distribute the money on tax-free debit cards, create new partnerships with school supply vendors to save teachers money, and rename the program Florida Teachers Classroom Supply Assistance Program. He touted the program extensively on social media and during his trips across the state.

Scott shouldered some criticism for the publicity.

"He gave the impression that this is a new program because it was a debit card," said Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association. "He added money to the pot, which we appreciated, but this is not a new program. It's the same idea that we've had for years."

The seven school systems to sign up for the cards included five small districts: Hamilton, Hendry, Jefferson, Lafayette and Levy.

Miami-Dade and Orange, two large districts run by politically savvy superintendents, also enrolled. Broward committed to participating next year, according to the governor's office.

Orange County superintendent Barbara Jenkins, who some observers consider a candidate to become lieutenant governor, sent her teachers a recorded phone call selling the program. "I know summer is a time when many of you purchase classroom supplies for the new school year, but you may want to hold off," she said.

Pinellas spokeswoman Donna Winchester said her district's decision had to do with timing.

Distributing the funds via direct deposit, she said, would ensure that teachers received the money "in either their first or second paycheck in September rather than having to wait until Sept. 30, the anticipated date for distribution of debit cards."

School district leaders in Pasco leaders said the old way of simply reimbursing teachers directly would be easier than providing heaps of information to JP- Morgan Chase, the company that won the bid for the debit cards. The company needs the information to assign the cards to teachers and distribute them to their homes or schools.

Scott conceded that the late distribution date wasn't ideal.

"We went through a competitive bidding process for the cards," he said. "I think it was the right thing to do. Some things take longer (than expected)."

But the governor was not disappointed that only seven districts had enrolled, he said.

"We're making progress every day," he said. "Like anything else — my background is in business — you try to do the best you can knowing that there are going to be some challenges."

Next year, Scott added, would be easier.

Times staff writers Cara Fitzpatrick and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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