While the state’s leaders congratulated themselves at the Capitol on a job well done as Gov. Rick Scott signed two sweeping education reforms into law on Sunday, Miami’s leading educator was raging against their budget as “historically disappointing to South FL schools.”
Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, is a loud voice in Florida’s education community as the award-winning leader of the fourth largest district in the nation. In recent days, he’s used that voice to let the Legislature know his disappointment.
“Where’s the fairness or equity in this budget for our children and teachers or our taxpayers who disproportionately contribute to the state’s coffers?” Carvalho asked in a series of scathing tweets criticizing the Legislature.
“Are South Florida’s children not children of the same God?” read another.
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That’s because in the Legislature’s budget this year, Miami-Dade and Broward were one district away from having the smallest increases in per-pupil funding statewide. The state average increase is $101.50, but Miami-Dade will receive $65.06 and Broward will get $52.35.
The disparity can be explained by the way the state structured its formula, reserving all but 47 cents of that $101.50 increase for specific categories of funding rather than the base amount used for schools’ regular operations. Some of these categories were part of the state’s $400 million response to the Parkland shooting for armed campus officers and fortifying school infrastructure, which lawmakers want at every school. But this funding structure inflates the budgets of smaller districts and puts more populous ones at a disadvantage.
Scott, surrounded by top Republican lawmakers and students, signed the Legislature’s two sweeping education bills reforming K-12 and higher education on Sunday and proclaimed a win for schools.
“This is an outstanding year for education,” Scott said in his office, where the signing took place.
When asked later in the day about the paltry 47 cent increase in the funds for regular school operations, he defended the budget priorities for school safety.
“What I’ve tried to do every year since I came in is try to put more money in education,” Scott said. “We do have more money for our students this year, but this year it was important to listen to these parents, listen to these families and focus on school safety and that’s what we did.”
Throughout the session, which spilled over its regular 60-day period, the House and Senate have made clear that both education bills that were signed on Sunday were among their top priorities. The Senate finally passed HB 7055 and the House passed SB 4 within 10 minutes of each other last week, possibly signifying each chamber was waiting for the other to follow through on its bill in a Legislative game of chicken.
SB 4 significantly and permanently expands the Bright Futures scholarship program for high-achieving, college-bound high school students and outlaws so-called “free speech zones” on college campuses.
HB 7055 creates a new voucher for students who are bullied that will pay for private school tuition and a scholarship for kids who fail reading tests to pay for tutors, and allows for millions to be directed from sales taxes to fund vouchers. It also requires teachers unions to now have 50 percent of all teachers who are eligible to be union members who pay dues, or risk being decertified — which has drawn more criticism than any other piece of the massive bill.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, said the change would bring more fairness to union representation. Because Florida is a “right-to-work state,” members of unions generally are not required by the state to pay dues, but this bill would impose that requirement for teachers unions.
“The reality is nobody should be forced to be led when the majority of the people you’re leading don’t want to be there,” Corcoran said. “It’s inconceivable you would have an organized union that wouldn’t have the support of 50 percent of its people. … It’s un-American.”
Americans for Prosperity, the activist arm for the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has been one of the chief supporters of the union rules, lobbying for the bill at virtually all of its committee stops. The group has also been mailing advertisements supporting this bill and Corcoran, who is considering a run for governor this year.
Meanwhile, teachers unions have condemned the measures since the beginning of the session as a targeted attack. Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, called the union rules “pure politics” on Sunday.
Teachers unions are often a key constituency group for Democrats, who largely disagree with using public funds for vouchers.
“I just find it very disheartening,” McCall said. “We’ll do what we need to do and go after it in the election cycle … and hopefully change some of the faces in Tallahassee.”
Reactions from the higher education community were less divided.
Florida State University President John Thrasher, who was present for the bill signing, said it was a good day for higher education. He had previously expressed concerns over the free speech language, which would allow people who felt their rights were violated during university-hosted events to sue.
But that language was watered down in the final version Scott signed, taking out minimum financial penalties and clarifying that only universities would be on the hook, not students or faculty who “materially disrupt” events.
“We worked with the Legislature on both sides and we’re very comfortable with it,” Thrasher said. “I think we ended up with a good bill so I’m very proud of it and I think the students will benefit from that.”