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Florida Board of Education seeks more money for vouchers, charter schools

Critics urge the board to pay more attention to public schools.

Sure, it’s just a request from an appointed board that has wielded little clout in the halls of the capitol.

But the Florida Board of Education this year is more aligned with the Governor’s Office now than in any other point in recent memory. And as members pointed out, education commissioner Richard Corcoran knows his way around not just writing budgets, but also getting them passed as a powerful recent House speaker.

So the board’s legislative budget request, which in past years hasn’t always even jibed with the governor’s proposal, gained some critical attention as it emerged this week during a meeting in Broward County. A phalanx of teachers decked out in red showed up to rally out front and then speak inside — until lately a rare occurrence — as a growing group of residents has begun to take the board more seriously.

Board members touted the proposal for its $25 million increase to mental health services funding, saying the addition could help create a more manageable ratio of counselor to students. They also liked the idea of spending $8 million to help school districts communicate better with emergency responders, and $10 million to pay off loans of new teachers in certain fields who agree to work for a set period at historically low-performing schools.

The “teacher talent pipeline” aims to bring about 1,700 new teachers into hard-to-staff schools, department chief of staff Alex Kelly told the board.

Board members expressed hope that the loan forgiveness program, combined with a base-student allocation increase of $50 per student, would help stem the tide of teachers leaving while also luring new ones to come. The base-student allocation hike, which would come from phasing out obsolete categoricals, could be used to raise teacher pay, Kelly pointed out.

Any such added money should come as salary, and not bonuses, insisted board member Michael Olenick, winning one of the few rounds of applause from a generally hostile crowd.

“You can’t get a mortgage or a car loan with a bonus,” Olenick said, suggesting the board and Legislature must make a long-range public commitment to boosting wages.

Corcoran stressed, too, that Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a priority of “elevating and celebrating the teaching profession,” adding, “I think there are opportunities ahead.”

What caught the critics’ attention, though, was the proposal to put $174 million of $264 million for fixed capital projects into charter schools. (The remainder would go to colleges.)

And the recommendation to put another $40 million into the Schools of Hope charter school program that has yet to open a single school in Florida, though some are planned in Miami and Tampa.

And the call to boost funding of the Gardiner Scholarship for disabled students by $42 million, to provide vouchers for an additional 4,000 children.

They blasted the board for any plan to take taxpayer dollars and send them to privately managed schools that don’t have to follow the same rules.

“Please fund our public schools,” Broward Teachers Union president Anna Fusco urged the board. “It’s not much to ask.”

United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats followed by telling the board that people don’t think the board is doing a good job, and its budget request reflects the concerns.

“Forty-ninth? Is that really what we are touting here?” Hernandez-Mats said, referring to one of Florida’s national rankings in funding levels. “There is a problem here. The problem is systematic underfunding.”

She and others asked the board to listen to the teachers who are in the schools, rather than pushing an agenda that includes test-based accountability and shifting standards.

“Our children deserve better,” she said.

Overall, the board’s legislative budget request includes a $146.8 million (1.57 percent) increase in the Florida Education Funding Program. It also calls for resurrecting state funding for districts that newly require student uniforms ($3 million), increasing spending on $500 reading scholarships to $10 million (up 32 percent), boosting teacher professional development by $12.8 million (including $3 million for work on the coming new standards), $13 million in cuts to special programs, and no change to the Best and Brightest teacher bonus funding ($284.5 million).

See the full LBR for more details.

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