Editorial: Florida Legislature fails public schools

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
A wide-reaching bill that has passed the House would establish a new system for gathering data from law enforcement agencies, courts, prisons and jails and make it searchable and publicly accessible.
SCOTT KEELER | Times A wide-reaching bill that has passed the House would establish a new system for gathering data from law enforcement agencies, courts, prisons and jails and make it searchable and publicly accessible.
Published March 15 2018
Updated March 15 2018

Tampa Bay school district superintendents who are asking Gov. Rick Scott to call the Florida Legislature into special session and demand more money for public schools can sum up their powerful argument in two numbers. The governor asked lawmakers to increase per student spending by $152. The Legislature increased general per student spending by 47 cents. Itís unconscionable.

State lawmakers will tell you they approved a historic amount of spending for public schools. What they donít tell you is much of that money is divided into specific spending categories and to help cover increases in student enrollment. For salary increases for teachers or new learning programs or higher electric bills or general costs, the increase per student is a miserly 47 cents.

State lawmakers will tell you they came up with $400 million in just three weeks to make schools safer following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. What they donít tell you is they didnít begin to cover the costs of meeting the new requirement of having at least one armed law enforcement officer in every school. Or that they refused to let school districts that donít want to arm teachers and other school personnel use that pot of money to pay for more law enforcement officers.

State lawmakers will tell you there isnít enough money for a higher increase in public school spending. What they donít tell you is they refused to spend $377 million in school property taxes generated by rising property values. Or that they steered $140 million to a program aimed at paying charter school companies to take over failing public schools. Or that they wasted $41 million on an unnecessary program to give private tuition vouchers to students who claim to be bullied. Or that they lavished $150 million in maintenance and construction money on charter schools and gave only $50 million to conventional public schools that serve the vast majority of students. Or that they squandered another $170 million for general tax cuts. Thereís plenty of money to increase per student spending.

Tampa Bay school superintendents ó including Pascoís Kurt Browning, Pinellasí Mike Grego and Hillsboroughís Jeff Eakins ó were respectful Thursday in asking Scott to call the Legislature into special session and seek more money for public schools. They praised his efforts to improve school safety, and they are joined by superintendents from other large districts around the state pleading for help. The situation is exacerbated by a skewed, arcane spending formula that favors rural counties over urban counties, with Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough ranking in the bottom 10 of 67 counties in overall increases for per student spending. Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, whose district ranks 65th, correctly calls this historic budget "historically disappointing.íí

Floridians should not have to choose between keeping students safe and providing them with a first-rate education in decent facilities. Yet legislators made that Hobsonís choice, and they didnít even do it well. They gave school districts an unfunded mandate on school safety. They required an armed law enforcement officer to be in every school but did not provide enough money to pay for it. They required districts to harden schools, but they allocated just $99 million for bulletproof glass, steel doors and other improvements. That wonít be nearly enough.

Tampa Bay school districts are in an untenable situation. In Pasco, that 47-cent increase in unrestricted per student spending generates less than the starting salary for one new teacher. In Hillsborough, Eakins projects an overall budget shortfall of $30 million. In Pinellas, Grego expects to be up to $8 million short of whatís needed to put an armed law enforcement officer in every school. Meanwhile, the school districtís electric bill is going up $1.5 million, its pension costs are rising $1.8 million and health insurance costs are up more than 4 percent.

It doesnít have to be this way. There isnít a lack of money to both keep students safe and educate them well. There is a lack of will in Tallahassee. Scott and the Legislature could come up with another $1 billion for public schools in a special session if Floridians demanded it, just as they reacted when Floridians insisted on a response to the Douglas High shooting. Donít let the governor or state legislators tell you Florida cannot afford to increase general per student spending by more than 47 cents.

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