To mask the depth of financial hurt they are inflicting on Florida schools, lawmakers are comparing their proposed budget for next year with cutbacks they just made last month. But the real picture is much worse. Compared to the budget lawmakers adopted about this time last year, the Senate's plan would cut school spending by $860-million.
Around Tampa Bay, the numbers are chilling: Pinellas down $46.8-million; Hillsborough down $43.8-million; Pasco down $4.3-million; Hernando down $6.9-million.
To this, House Schools and Learning Chairman Joe Pickens responds: "Nobody's suggesting from the Republican Party that (the) reduction isn't real. But we had to come to grips that that's the best we could do."
Really? These are budgetary drops without modern precedent, and parents and educators in this region deserve more than talking points about balanced budgets in hard times. The economic downturn does play a significant role, but the budgetary choices are much broader than the political leaders want to acknowledge.
The 2008-09 appropriations bills are not merely a conflict between needy schoolchildren and declining state revenues. They also represent a triumph of the interests of corporations and wealthy investors and politically connected professionals over the needs of schoolchildren.
The floor debate in both chambers has told the story. Close tax loopholes for interstate corporations: Rejected. Remove unwarranted sales tax exemptions: Rejected. Make online purchases subject to the same tax as those in the local store: Rejected. Increase cigarette taxes: Rejected. Take a reasonable amount of money from state reserves to cushion the impacts: Rejected.
Against such an ideological backdrop, schools are fair game. The proposed Senate budget would cut spending by nearly $300 per student, and both chambers' bills would make dramatic cuts in mentoring, reading coaches, instruction technology and materials, class-size reduction and teaching rewards.
The line-item cuts are only the beginning. Consider Pinellas County, which has adopted a new student assignment plan aimed at strengthening the link between schools and neighborhoods. To cushion the impact for families that might get caught in the transition, School Board members agreed to provide transportation to both the old and new schools. Here's the kicker: The House budget would cut transportation for Pinellas next year by almost $1-million, even as fuel prices soar.
Pinellas already is looking at the possibility that teachers will get no pay increases for the next two years. Hillsborough is looking at removing guidance counselors and reducing library services. Throughout the state, the cuts may produce fewer summer classes, art, music and physical education offerings, reading coaches and guidance counselors, and sports and extracurricular opportunities.
Legislative leaders are driving this narrow debate with simplistic comparisons to household budgets, but Tampa Bay area lawmakers will have to do better. The House speaker and Senate president don't have to answer to the people of this region, but roughly two dozen senators and representatives do. They would be wise not to come home and hit the campaign trail without first putting schoolchildren ahead of special interests.