It's time for Gov. Rick Scott to stand up to the Florida Legislature, which appears determined to destroy public education. The governor should start by vetoing the anemic public schools budget and a mammoth education bill that was negotiated in secret and micromanages school districts to death. Unless Scott acts decisively and forces state lawmakers to invest more and meddle less, the march to suffocate local control and promote the privatization of the public school system will accelerate.
In most years, legislators would not risk going home with such a meager investment in public education. The $82.4 billion state budget they approved for 2017-18 includes just a token increase of $24.22 per student, an increase of less than one-half of 1 percent that includes requirements for spending money in specific areas. The base allocation per student actually would drop by $27.20. That is simply unacceptable.
Tampa Bay superintendents are sounding the alarm. Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego's staff says $30 million in planned renovation projects and 25 instructional coaches for low-performing students could be cut. Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins warns of a potential hiring freeze. Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning says he would have to cut the equivalent of 130 positions. Hernando superintendent Lori Romano calls it "a gut punch.'' This is self-inflicted damage by a callous Legislature.
Public schools could have had more than $500 million in additional revenue without increasing school property tax rates if they could have just kept the revenue generated by rising property values. That money was included in the governor's proposed budget, but House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, labeled it a tax increase and refused to allow it. Or lawmakers could have tapped the $1 billion or more put in reserves. Or the tens of millions wasted on unneeded tax cuts. With the economy recovering, there is no need to be so miserly.
Yet at every turn, state legislators shortchanged public education. They gave privately run charter schools and traditional public schools $50 million each for maintenance and repairs even though charters serve a fraction of the students. To rub salt in the wound, for the first time they forced school districts to share with charter schools local property tax money for capital projects. Then they slapped new restrictions on how districts can allocate federal Title I money to schools filled with low-income children. In the coup de grace, the Senate caved to Corcoran and agreed to spend $140 million on his "Schools of Hope'' initiative, which aims to lure charter schools to take over from low-performing public schools in poor neighborhoods.
The details of this charter school power play are included in HB 7069, a 278-page abomination of dozens of bills stitched together in secret and approved on the final day of this depressing legislative session. The "Schools of Hope" would operate virtually untouched by local school districts, with state loans for construction and state money to pay salaries and overhead. This is essentially a hostile takeover by private operators, and the last-minute direction to steer a fraction of the program's money to up to 25 struggling public schools is insulting.
But this legislation is full of slights and absurdities, such as requiring 20 minutes of daily recess at all elementary schools — but not at charter schools. It slipped through the Senate on a 20-18 vote, and the governor should not let it become law. The future of public education in Florida is at stake. Scott should veto the public education budget and the accompanying legislation, call the Legislature into special session and demand better.