Senate Republicans rolled out an education budget Tuesday that would increase spending by $1.1 billion for Florida public schools compared with the current year, a proposal that is also higher than the plan released by the state's GOP governor.
The Senate spending plan outlined Tuesday envisions $22.2 billion for public schools, an increase of about $350 per student over current levels. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed education spending budget calls for $21.7 billion in school spending. Both proposals are higher than this year’s budget.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, who chairs the Senate Appropriations education subcommittee, said the percentage increase in per-student funding is the most in the last six years.
“We do value education, all education. And we get the money there,” said Stargel, a Lakeland Republican. “We are about students.”
The Senate plan would also provide $68 million to help Florida schools hire at least one safety officer for each school, $46 million to assist struggling schools, $31 million to address youth mental health issues and $14.2 million to help Panhandle schools that have lost enrollment because of Hurricane Michael.
There would also be $50 million in "school hardening grants" to help districts and charter schools increase security and $2 million for Jewish day school security.
The measure also carves out $233 million for bonuses for teachers and principals based on the academic improvement of schools. Many teachers and administrators say the best way to recruit and retain them is to raise their salaries rather than pay one-time bonuses.
"Fewer people are choosing teaching because they can't afford to support their families that way," said Pamela Schwartz of the Florida Retired Teachers Association.
The Senate budget does include about $600 million in "flexible funds" that local school districts can tap into for such things as teacher raises or other needs.
The House has not yet released its education budget proposal. Eventually, the Legislature and DeSantis must come together on a single balanced state budget by the end of the 60-day session in May. Education spending represents more about a quarter of the total state budget.
The panel also voted Tuesday for a voucher bill that would for the first time allow thousands of students to attend private and parochial schools using taxpayer dollars typically spent on traditional public schools. The measure envisions about 15,000 students as eligible for the new Family Empowerment Scholarship Program with income levels capped at just under $67,000 for a family of four. The House has a more expansive version.
The voucher bills, a priority for DeSantis and GOP legislative leaders, draw heated debate on both sides and Tuesday was no exception.
Democratic Sen. Bill Montford of Tallahassee called it a "fundamental change" in Florida education spending that will wind up short-changing traditional public schools attended by about 2.8 million students.
"I believe we're going down the wrong path," he said.
But Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley of Lady Lake said it's wrong to think that struggling schools can be fixed simply by spending more money and that students have a variety of reasons to choose to enroll in private schools.
"We are not going back to being told where to go. Families are done with that," Baxley said. "I think our traditional schools will be fine because they'll adapt, too."
Florida currently has four scholarship programs that provide for more than 100,000 students to attend private and religious schools, including many children with disabilities and special needs. Those programs are not funded with money usually spent on public schools.