A $12 billion question: Florida’s education budget hinges on COVID-19 relief

The House wants Florida Department of Education spending authority over federal funds to give directly to K-12 school districts. Senate leaders, meanwhile, have said little about how they want to use the money.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, left and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, right.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, left and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, right. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published April 21, 2021|Updated April 22, 2021

A dispute over how to use $12 billion in federal COVID-19 stimulus funds earmarked for education has led to an impasse in budget negotiations as Florida lawmakers work to piece together a near-$100 billion fiscal plan for 2021-22.

House leaders have appropriated some of the funds in their initial education budget offers and House Speaker Chris Sprowls said in an interview Tuesday that the Legislature’s role should be to give the Florida Department of Education spending authority over $7 billion in federal funds to give directly to K-12 school districts.

Senate leaders, meanwhile, have said little about how they want to use any of the money as they say they are still figuring out how they can and cannot use the federal funds on education.

The spending disconnect between the House and Senate has stalled education budget negotiations and left many key education spending issues in flux, including final decisions on teacher pay increases, one-time $1,000 bonuses for educators and principals, and the Legislature’s efforts to expand the state’s school choice programs (although a deal on vouchers is nearing the finish line).

“It kind of threw a monkey wrench into the whole process,” Sen. Doug Broxson, the Senate’s top education budget negotiator, told reporters on Monday night after he said the House and Senate discussions over the entire K-12 budget had reached an impasse.

By Wednesday morning, nothing had changed. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kelli Stargel told reporters the chambers are still hashing out details over the federal funds, which are part of Congress’ American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that included $122 billion for education and was signed last month by President Joe Biden.

“It’s taking a little bit of time, but I will assure you that we’re not just going to do it,” Stargel told reporters on Wednesday. “You’re going to see us go through the process.”

House and Senate leaders have a little less than a week to hash out their budget differences, not just on education but on all budget silos, if they want to wrap up the 60-day legislative session on time April 30.

In addition to the $12 billion in federal funds earmarked for education, state lawmakers are also trying to make a decision on $10 billion that the state is expected to receive from the American Rescue Plan to address other effects of the coronavirus pandemic. So far, both chambers have only agreed on what to do with $2 billion.

Flush with one-time federal cash

The infusion of federal funds has not only added another complicating layer to budget negotiations, it has also left open-ended questions on how the Republican-dominated Legislature will determine how to best use one-time payments.

Florida’s schools and students are still reeling from the pandemic, a year after state officials first called for campus closures and canceled spring testing. Many struggles continue.

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In Miami-Dade County Public Schools, for instance, a majority of Black students are failing state tests in English Language Arts, math and science, despite graduation rates topping 85 percent.

The U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday issued further guidance on how states should use federal funds from the American Rescue Plan that are earmarked to safely reopen schools. Florida is expected to get about $7 billion from that fund, according to figures provided by the Senate.

“These American Rescue Plan funds are essentially to provide more in-person learning options for students quickly, sustaining schools’ safe operations, supporting our students’ social emotional, mental health, and academic needs, and boldly addressing inequities that were exacerbated by the pandemic,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

Cardona said that it is “critical that states and districts bring to the table the voices of those who can best speak to how we can meet these goals, including students, parents, educators and stakeholders.”

In an interview, Sprowls said the House is looking at giving the state Department of Education spending authority over the funds. He said the department, which is part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, would determine how to spend the money with districts.

“Then they will construct the plan on how that is spent and then they send it back to us and say, ‘Hey this is how we are going to spend the money in the districts. This is what it will be spent on,’ " Sprowls said.

Department of Education spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said that if the Legislature decides to give the state agency spending authority, the agency would plan to work collaboratively with districts to meet their needs.

Some Republican lawmakers have said the one-time federal aid should be used for remedial programs and reading scholarships to help students who have experienced learning losses during the pandemic, while others have railed against the latest round of federal relief for schools, saying it is not needed.

“It is an absolute travesty that the federal government has put our children in debt to give us education funding that we simply do not need, but we are going to be as responsible as we can with it,” Rep. Randy Fine, the House’s top education budget negotiator, told reporters on Sunday after the Legislature’s first round of budget negotiations.

Fine noted that in Florida, schools are already open and that a third round with billions in aid is not needed.

Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who has long been involved in education policy in the Legislature, said it would be a good idea for the Legislature to put more money into remedial programs, reading scholarships and extended-year summer programs. He said that would help kids who are experiencing the so-called COVID-19 slide.

“It may not solve the issue, but I think it helps up remediate these students to get them out of a COVID slide and get them back on track,” Diaz said. “I think that’s a good use of that money to try to attack that directly whether it is reading, math, or a combination of both.”

Education wish lists and negotiations

Senate Democrats on Wednesday released a spending wish list showing what they would do if they were in control of the Legislature. The plan included $1,500 in grants to teachers, school support staff and private-sector “essential infrastructure employees” who earn less than $30 per hour.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has also proposed $1,000 bonuses for 3,600 public school principals and nearly 180,000 full-time classroom teachers. The House and Senate have not agreed on the governor’s bonus request.

“There’s still a lot of discussion that is occurring,” Stargel said Wednesday. “It is a priority to make sure that we recognize our teachers.”

DeSantis also has requested $550 million, a $50 million increase from the current year’s budget, to continue raising teachers’ annual salaries to at least $47,500. The House has matched the governor’s request, but the Senate has so far offered just $500 million.

Negotiations are still ongoing on the Legislature’s effort to expand school choice programs — also referred to as school vouchers — something Republicans in both the House and Senate want to do. While they agree on most of the policy, they have not agreed on the funding.

The House budget offer accounted for $464.3 million for school choice under a budget line called “student reserve allocation.” At first that money was meant for schools to draw from should students who left the public school system during the pandemic return throughout the next school year.

But now, the missing student allocation has been set aside for school choice.

The Senate has not agreed to that. But Diaz, the Senate sponsor of the voucher bill, told the Times/Herald on Wednesday that he has reached a deal with the House on both policy and funding.

He said he is going to take up the House version of the bill on Thursday, which, just like the Senate’s version, will significantly expand eligibility for the state’s school-voucher programs. Now that they agree on the policy, the funding dispute is also resolved, Diaz said.

“It is a resolved issue on the budget,” he said, noting he believes $200 million from the “student reserve allocation” will now go toward school choice and the rest for students who return to the school system.

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