TAMPA — Florida education funding could face tight times in the coming legislative session, with revenue low and competition for resources high.
But key state senators told the state's school board members this week that they remained staunch supporters of public schools, and they would work to direct as much money as possible into the system, while also looking for ways to conserve.
Among their priorities: higher teacher pay, decreased testing and added accountability measures for choice programs such as charter schools. Those are not the same ideas being promoted in the heavily conservative House.
"Until such day as we hold everybody to the same set of standards, we shouldn't be spending the same amount of money on everybody," Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said, referring to choice programs.
Latvala was one of four senators — all holding important positions overseeing spending and/or education — who spoke Thursday to the Florida School Boards Association, meeting in Tampa for a week-long conference.
He told the gathering that the education budget likely would increase by a small percentage, and only if lawmakers allow school districts to maintain or increase their local property tax rates. District leaders complained last year that they barely stayed even after the Legislature cut the tax rates.
Latvala acknowledged that some of the tough spending decisions districts face now arose because of more than a decade of cuts to recurring revenue, such as state taxes. Since 2000, he said, lawmakers have reduced those sources by $2.7 billion.
"We've done it. I voted for most, if not all of it," he said. "Therefore, we just have to make do with what we've got today."
Senate Education Appropriations chairman David Simmons, R-Longwood, said his task will be to "rearrange what we've got" to accomplish the important goals of improving education.
"I'm going to push for better compensation" for teachers, Simmons said.
He pledged to continue pushing for longer school days for children in the neediest conditions. Simmons has been the chief proponent of adding an hour of reading instruction to the lowest-performing elementary schools, and he said he does not want to take the hour away from those schools that use it to improve.
He also called for streamlining state testing.
"The Senate has been a leader in making sure we're not wasting … our children's time taking tests we do not need," Simmons said.
The Legislature recently set caps on state- and district-mandated testing, but high enough that it didn't impact most schools.
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, piggybacked on that concern. The head of the state's superintendents association, Montford stressed that school district leaders fully back a "strong, fair" accountability system.
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"But quite frankly, some us believe our accountability system, we've overloaded it," said Montford, who sits on the Senate Education Appropriations and full Appropriations committees.
He echoed Latvala's call for equal treatment of all schools that receive tax dollars. And he made clear the importance of keeping local control of the schools, rather than making all decisions in the Capitol.
That issue came through when school boards association executive director Andrea Messina asked the lawmakers for their position on a bill to mandate daily elementary school recess.
"We need to figure out a way to make it happen," said Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, vice chairwoman of education appropriations.
But lawmakers need to be careful, Montford suggested.
"The question needs to be asked, 'Then what do you want to take out (of the school day)?' " he said. "You can't just keep adding."
Florida's academic year lasts just 180 days, about seven hours a day. Adding just an hour to the lowest-performing elementary schools, as Simmons' reading program does, costs millions.
"We all know what is needed is more time between students and teachers," Montford said. "The question is, are we willing to pay for it?"
After the 75-minute session, board members said they were satisfied with what they heard.
St. Johns County board member Bev Slough praised Latvala for being up front with his thoughts about local tax rates. She was hopeful lawmakers will create workable budgets for schools.
"If they roll back (local rates) again and there is no new money, it's going to be very difficult," Slough said.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.