Despite the state's looming budget deficit, there is an opportunity this year to link Florida's future with investment in a more cohesive approach to higher education. If it wasn't clear by now, the recession has underscored the folly of relying so heavily on development and growth to fuel the state's economy. Now one of Florida's leading business groups is calling to invest $2 billion a year more in public universities by 2015, and the politically savvy Republican leading the State University System is making a compelling case.
Chancellor Frank Brogan, the former state education commissioner and the lieutenant governor under former Gov. Jeb Bush, and the Board of Governors have launched "New Florida." It is a bold campaign to sell cash-strapped Florida on doubling its investment in higher education in five years to help transform its economy. It's the kind of investment the state needs to ensure a brighter 21st century.
New Florida, which has the backing of the Council of 100 business group, seeks to double the state's university system budget to roughly $4 billion by 2015. The plan calls for investing half the new money in producing degrees and research in the fields most closely associated with knowledge-based economies: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The other half would flow to fields needed for regional and statewide development, such as business, nursing, computing, construction and education. But Brogan promises the humanities and the arts would not be abandoned.
Florida wants to become more like North Carolina, where state leaders a half-century ago began heavily investing in higher education to offset the decline of agriculture and the textile industries. The Research Triangle is now among the world's leading innovation centers.
The attraction of the New Florida initiative is more than money. It anticipates a far more coordinated higher education effort. Florida's universities, encouraged by the Legislature's divided loyalties, often compete for scarce state dollars and duplicate programs. Coordination with the state's community colleges, which are increasingly offering four-year degrees, also is badly lacking.
New Florida is an ambitious proposal in a particularly challenging era. The state faces a $3 billion deficit, and legislative leadership has ruled out any additional taxes to raise revenue. The governor recommends an additional $100 million for universities next year, but that hinges on his assumptions that the gambling compact will be approved and that additional federal money will flow to the state.
But Florida has to start somewhere and stop starving its universities, reducing faculty, cutting some programs and duplicating others. New Florida provides an attractive road map for improving higher education. As Brogan says, any new money in such a tight budget year would make a big statement that universities are key to a brighter Florida future. It's time legislators saw the light.