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A Times Editorial

School sleight of hand

The Florida Legislature will vote on state budget proposals this week that include jury-rigged public education budgets featuring per pupil spending that would be the same or even a little higher for 2009-10. Don't be fooled. The sleight of hand is based on the hope and a prayer of federal stimulus money, Seminole Tribe gambling proceeds — and creative bookkeeping that pushes harder spending choices to local school boards.

Even though Florida has spent too little on education for years, both the House and Senate expect the federal government to grant the state a waiver so Florida can receive $2.2 billion in stimulus money (Pinellas' share is about $35 million; Hillsborough's, about $63 million). The education budget is balanced precariously on the back of that premise. In addition, the Senate version assumes that a cigarette tax will pass and that money will flow from a gaming compact that isn't even approved yet. Those are a lot of assumptions that cover up the need for more tax revenue.

The bills offer some reasonable steps to give local districts flexibility:

• In meeting the class-size requirements, districts could still use school-wide averages, rather than the more expensive class-by-class average for the 2009-10 school year.

• Money earmarked for specific expenses such as buses or textbooks is poured into the overall per-pupil spending numbers. The upshot: Districts would have more discretion in how to spend their money even if they would have no more of it.

• Districts could take 0.25 mill reserved for capital projects and use it in the classrooms instead (that amounts to about $16 million in Pinellas).

• Instead of mandating a 180-day school year, the bills would allow districts to adopt longer four-day weeks or other measures so long as they are equivalent to 180 school days.

These are sensible short-term emergency reactions to the budget crisis, although they are a poor substitute for properly funding the schools. Keep in mind that even though the per-pupil number may be stable, many actual school budgets are still facing big shortfalls — Hillsborough would see a cut ranging from $4 million to $19 million, and in Pinellas it would be even worse.

The House bill also contains a troubling proposal for National Board-certified teachers. Now these teachers receive a bonus worth about $5,000 a year. Under the bill, teachers who are certified after July 1 would receive that bonus only if they agree to teach in a low-performing school. Teachers should have incentives to teach in challenging schools, but this does not seem the best way to do it.

To keep per-pupil funding level, the bills also skim money from other accounts, which will reduce mentoring and teacher development programs, among many others. Particularly troubling is a Senate proposal to cut in half the bonus money for International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement classes. These are expensive programs that require dedicated hard work, training and intensive time on the part of both teachers and students. These classes train some of the brightest minds in Florida for the challenges of the future and are worth every penny. To reduce this money is to risk dimming one of the bright lights in Florida's public high schools, and it is incredibly shortsighted.

The Legislature has a great deal of work to do to shape an acceptable education budget in these tough times. Micromanaging and dictating how districts will spend their money — whether mandating school board salary caps or requiring board votes for interstate travel — is not appropriate. Giving them the most flexibility as stewards of scarce dollars is a better approach.

School sleight of hand 04/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 4:31am]
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