Monday, January 22, 2018
Opinion

Column: Florida's schools need new funding for repairs

I can't remember the last time I passed by a school playground that wasn't dotted with portables. Or visited a school cafeteria where lunch didn't start at 10 a.m. or earlier. Florida's schools are overcrowded and our labs are obsolete, and our growing population will only further exacerbate the problem.

A recent survey of the nation's public K-12 schools revealed that more than half are in need of repair and upgrades. The survey estimated it would cost us on average $4.5 million per school to bring our classrooms up to par.

Student enrollment at Florida's colleges and universities has also grown exponentially in recent years. While it's promising to see more and more Florida students are pursuing their college degrees, the increase in enrollment has put a strain on the resources of the colleges and universities. Rather than investing in the latest science technology for STEM degrees, they are forced to spend what little they have on leaking roofs and broken air conditioners.

Yet the source of funding to cover these costs is drying up. Traditionally, we've used a portion of revenue from the tax Floridians pay on land-line phones to help Florida's schools prepare students to compete, and colleges and universities to develop a world-class workforce. At its peak six years ago, nearly $500 million was available for this purpose, but with the decline in the use of land-line phones, among other reasons, funding diminished to just $73 million last year.

Meanwhile, the needs of Florida's schools continue to grow. Relying on the land-line generation to pay for the education resources of the smartphone generation will not suffice.

In order to prepare Florida's students to compete in this increasingly global economy, investing in our next generation must be a top priority. We must provide them with a high-quality education, and that includes the resources they need to succeed in school. We must dedicate a long-term, sustainable source of funding to support Florida's schools.

I've partnered with Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola, to do just that. We've proposed a legislative measure (SB 1076 and HB 899) that would direct a portion of the revenue from the existing tax on business electricity bills — nearly $225 million per year — to support our schools and students. Our proposal would not only provide the resources our schools, colleges and universities need to serve their growing student populations, it will help get Florida's kids college, career and workforce-ready.

This investment in education, along with our proposed $225 million tax cut on Florida businesses and a tax-free weekend for consumers to save on purchases of energy and water efficient appliances, represents a balance of short- and long-term investments that are good for our natural resources, economic development and our kids.

Adam H. Putnam is Florida's commissioner of agriculture. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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