It is time for an open and honest discussion about funding for Florida's public schools, which are suffering from cuts in per-pupil spending and the Legislature's obsession with charter schools and vouchers. Now at least one member of the state Board of Education has persuaded his colleagues to hold a daylong discussion this week on the issue. In a state where few public officials are willing to even talk about whether enough money is being spent on public schools, that's progress.
Board of Education member Roberto Martinez sought Tuesday's workshop in Tampa. The state Constitution guarantees a "high quality system of free public schools." As Martinez points out, education is the only right in the Florida Constitution that is spelled out with such specificity — and with the obligation to spend enough money to ensure that quality.
The workshop, he believes, "will be the board's first effort to fulfill its (constitutional) obligation in a meaningful and comprehensive manner." It is a worthy step in the right direction.
Martinez has assembled an impressive list of educators and advocates to provoke the discussion: school superintendents who are innovators, such as Hillsborough's MaryEllen Elia and Miami-Dade's Alberto Carvalho; several community college presidents; Andy Ford, the president of the Florida Education Association; David Lawrence, the former Miami Herald publisher who is a staunch advocate of early education; Bill Montford, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents; and Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. They have different agendas and come from different political persuasions. But they all have ideas about how to improve education for Florida's children — and they know what works.
The goal is to put good minds together to discuss the issue, figure out how to get the necessary money and spend it wisely on programs that succeed.
Martinez, no starry-eyed liberal, was appointed to the board by Gov. Jeb Bush and reappointed by Gov. Charlie Crist. He doesn't believe that education reform is a partisan issue. But he does believe that education is the state's highest priority. He has children in both private and public schools and is fully aware of the promises and the challenges of both. He also believes that the state needs to spend more on public education — not raise taxes but spend a larger percentage of the state budget on it. "We have to reprioritize our spending, put more of that money toward the development of our kids," he said in an interview.
He believes that reforms over the past decade have set the table for educational performance to rise if enough money is spent — and prudently. Focus on programs that are measurable and accountable, he believes. If a program is working, give it more to soar. If a program is failing, analyze why, but don't throw good money after bad.
But Martinez also believes that the Board of Education has "an obligation to tell legislators what is needed to achieve a world-class education." In a world of zero-sum budgets, he feels it is essential that educators make their case for the state's schools to be adequately funded as a critical need for the once and future success of the Sunshine State, even if it means there are fewer dollars to spend in other areas.
In a climate rife with spending cutbacks and a focus on creating jobs, Martinez reminds us that the most important capital is human capital and that the best way to raise it is through education. Education is the state's future. And educating Florida's children is a duty enshrined in the state's Constitution. The workshop is a commendable start to make that discussion public, pointed and urgent. Good education doesn't come cheap. It's time for the state to acknowledge that and meet its constitutional obligations to Florida's children.