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House, Senate education budgets differ by $600 million

The chambers differ on per-student funding by nearly $200.
Escambia County science teacher Carol Cleaver asks lawmakers to focus on pay raises rather than annual bonuses, as the House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee discusses its budget proposal on March 20, 2019. [The Florida Channel]
Published Mar. 20
Updated Mar. 20

As anticipated, the Florida House unveiled a PreK-12 spending plan Wednesday that’s more than a half-billion dollars leaner than the version released Tuesday by the Senate.

Both differ from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request.

After introducing his $21.6 billion proposal, House PreK-12 Appropriations chairman Rep. Chris Latvala made clear he anticipated changes as the session progresses.

“This is just a starting point,” Latvala remarked, noting the House will have to confer with a Senate that has “a different budget philosophy than what we do.”

Among the differences, the House proposed increasing the base-student allocation — general revenue funds that are not earmarked for specific expenses — by $38.34, to $4,242.76. The Senate, by contrast, proposed raising that amount by $149. (Last year, the BSA went up 47 cents, as much of the money was funneled into security and safety requirements.)

The House called for an overall increase in per-student funding of $167.79, less than half of Senate’s $350 per student proposal.

“It’s not just reaction from last year,” Senate Education Appropriations chairwoman Kelli Stargel said. “I think we’ve done the best we could over the last few years, but I think what you’re seeing with this Senate in what we’re trying to do is that we do value education – all education, including public education. And we put the money there to help support that.”

The House suggested $20.5 million in added funds for Gardiner Scholarships, including eliminating the wait list for the money to help children with certain disabilities. The Senate put $30 million more into its budget.

The Senate included $14 million to support school districts hit hard by Hurricane Michael. The House did not mention such an expense.

On other issues, though, the chambers were in close agreement — including at least one where they have not been in sync in recent years.

For three years, the two sides have disagreed on whether to allow school districts to take advantage of rising property values by leaving their tax rates steady and collecting the difference. This year, though, both appear to accept the idea of allowing districts to collect added local tax revenue through the required local effort for new construction only. It is expected to generate $143 million more statewide.

The chambers also both would put about $234 million into the Florida Education Finance Program for a revamped Best and Brightest teacher plan (though they do not agree on the details). They each provide $2 million for Jewish school security, and both seek to maintain a funding formula that takes into account the cost and wage differences among Florida’s counties.

A handful of teachers urged the House committee to reconsider the continued march toward annual bonuses rather than dependable salary increases within the budget.

“You need to send a clear and direct message to teachers across the state that they are supported,” said Carol Cleaver, an Escambia County science teacher of 14 years. “I’m putting in the extra work. I am here on my spring break to ask the Florida Legislature to put in a little extra work too. ... Get serious about compensating teachers.”

Leon County teacher Scott Mazur echoed the sentiment, telling lawmakers that “bonus schemes don’t work.”

He noted the past versions of Best and Brightest did not always reward top performing teachers, and they sometimes excluded those very teachers. The law focuses on getting awards to “classroom teachers” only.

“I didn’t get Best and Brightest. But I was a ‘high impact’ VAM teacher every year,” said Mazur, president of the Leon teachers association. “I got a letter from Pam Stewart instead of money.”

Latvala noted that in his committee’s implementing language, the Best and Brightest would go to every teacher rated “highly effective” or “effective,” removing the previous college entry test score requirement. Nearly 93 percent of teachers fall into one of the two categories, he observed.

“In a perfect world, we would be able to give teachers raises,” he said. “It is something I would also love to do.”

But for now, at least, it’s not in the proposals.

The budget recommendations next head to their respective appropriations committees for further review.

— Staff writer Emily Mahoney contributed.

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