A new school year is under way, and if not for federal stimulus dollars, public schools across the Tampa Bay area would have started it with 2,800 fewer teachers. More than $435 million is coming out of Washington to help local districts teach 380,000 students this year and next. The largesse allowed the cash-strapped Florida Legislature to use the money to plug huge holes in the state budget and put off making tough choices. But here's the harsh reality. Florida has no plan yet for what to do when the federal aid dries up after next school year.
A series of tax-cutting moves by the Legislature, combined with the sour real estate market, have strained the largest funding source for schools: property taxes. Plus, the state's system of K-12 schools will also cost more starting next year because of the final step in a 2002 voter-approved plan to shrink class sizes.
It's time for Florida's legislative leaders to get serious about how they plan to fund education in a state where economists warn the current revenue structure won't return to 2007-08 levels for at least another three years. A first step would be addressing the class size issue. But it can't be the last.
Right now, districts are allowed to calculate class sizes based on a school-wide average. But starting in the fall of 2010, each classroom must have no more than 18 students per teacher in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 students in grades four through eight, and 25 in high school classes. The cost is expected to add billions to an annual budget the state wouldn't have even covered this year without help from Washington.
Last spring, lawmakers considered options for tweaking the class size amendment, including asking voters whether they would approve keeping the class size formula at a school-wide average. But in the end, the political courage to seek a reprieve from voters wasn't there.
Even greater political obstacles will exist this coming spring, when lawmakers will be gearing up for 2010 re-election bids. But the point the Legislature's Republican leadership must accept, finally, is that the current system isn't sustainable. Tough choices must be made, including consideration of additional tax revenue dedicated to improving the quality of Florida's education system.
Florida schools, already some of the lowest funded in the country on a per-pupil basis, need a reliable, long-term source of adequate money. That is the bottom line if this state is ever to expand its economy beyond low-paying, service-based industries or unsustainable growth industries such as construction.
Pushing the issue forever into the future will not make it go away. Federal stimulus dollars are a short-term aid, the classroom amendment's huge costs are about to land, and the Legislature needs to be prepared to act responsibly to give education the money it needs.
Florida's future depends on it.