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Senator bemoans lack of commitment to education

There is no lack of shame when state Sen. Ken Pruitt is around.

He's got plenty. He spreads it around, too.

In a word, Florida's treatment of its education system has been shameful. So, Pruitt is traveling the state pitching his own idea. Florida should be more committed to education. The Legislature should increase the amount of general revenue dollars earmarked for public schools, universities and community colleges.

Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, just won't say how to do it.

That is another shame. For a guy who spent 30 minutes Monday morning talking about commitment, he equivocates on where to find the money, saying the "160 fairly bright people" _ his words, not mine _ in the Legislature will figure it out.

One thing is certain. Pruitt thinks the money is available already, particularly in light of the state's recent spending binge.

"You know, we found $310-million for Scripps. We found $63-million for prisons. You bet we can find it (money for education) without a new revenue source," Pruitt said.

Pruitt came to Pasco-Hernando Community College's Ridge Road campus Monday morning, making it Stop 23 on his tour of Florida's 28 community colleges to push the message behind his Brighter Futures Foundation. Later, he appeared at Central High School in Hernando County and intends to visit the state's 11 universities and all 62 counties before ending his school bus tour. The effort culminates with a March 17 rally in Tallahassee.

Monday's crowd of about 35 onlookers included five PHCC students, members of the college's board of trustees, Pasco school superintendent John Long, School Board members Kathleen Wolf and Jean Weightman, state Rep. Ken Littlefield and an aide to Sen. Mike Fasano.

They heard Pruitt reiterate his fears the Legislature will again attempt to renege on the Bright Futures scholarship program which has used lottery dollars to finance 100,000 academic scholarships since its inception in 1997. The Senate killed a House move to alter the program earlier this year.

But the agenda includes more than Bright Futures. College enrollments are climbing, yet the state funding increases to colleges and universities have been minimal.

The amount the state spends on each community college student is less today than it was five years ago, and the community college portion of the state budget has grown by just 1.8 percent in the past three years while enrollment has jumped 27.5 percent.

PHCC president Robert Judson painted a bleak picture as he lobbied Pruitt for help. Three years ago, PHCC received $3,900 per full-time student when its enrollment was 2,667. But a 37 percent jump over two years to 3,676 students was accompanied by a $55,000 cut in funding. It means per-pupil aid is down to $2,800, translating to $5-million not coming to the college. It is money that would be used to hire faculty, expand facilities and make sure students aren't turned away from desired classes.

Statewide, about 35,000 students were shut out of community college classes. Judson said 1,000 people filled out applications to attend PHCC, then did not enroll. He said at least 250 were shut out of classes, but the college estimates the figure might be twice that high. Considering the average age of a PHCC student is 26, Judson said he worries those potential students will never attempt college again.

Give the community colleges credit. They aren't waiting on a nebulous promise of help. They want the Legislature to give local colleges the ability to raise its $1 per credit hour capital improvement fee, which hasn't increased since its inception in 1989. Tripling the fee would generate $24-million for community colleges, up from $8-million. If approved by the Legislature, the proceeds could be bonded to begin immediate capital improvements.

Again, Pruitt was noncommittal. He said he was receptive to the idea, but didn't want to lose sight of his tour's purpose _ increasing general revenue spending on education.

Pruitt, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and candidate for Senate president in 2006, accepted his share of the blame for Pasco and Hernando school districts having to ask voters to increase the local sales tax to finance new school construction. Both counties have sales tax referendums scheduled for March 2004.

"Shame on the state in the first place for making the locals take up the state's responsibility," said Pruitt. "The locals are having to do it because of the lack of commitment or the lack of internal fortitude at the state level.

"Shame on us."

At least he has identified the problem. But, the self-flagellation will be nothing but shameful rhetoric if Tallahassee settles for the status quo on its education commitment.