Florida Politics

‘Hollow victory?’ Some lawmakers say new K-12 spending isn’t enough

House pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, right, talks with Rep. Jayer Williamson, R-Pace, on the House floor during a special session of the Florida Legislature Thursday June 8, 2017, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.
House pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, right, talks with Rep. Jayer Williamson, R-Pace, on the House floor during a special session of the Florida Legislature Thursday June 8, 2017, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. AP

Some Democratic lawmakers on Friday criticized a new K-12 schools budget the Legislature approved for 2017-18 that would boost spending by $100 per student over this school year — calling the additional dollars a “hollow victory” and “not enough” to truly address public education.

“I believe the increase is helpful but more is needed,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami. “Florida is the third largest state in the nation, yet our per-pupil funding is still $3,000 below the national average.”

“We’re underfunding public education,” agreed Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura. “That’s a mistake. That sells short the future of our state.”

“Public education has been the great leveler in this country; it’s been the main means of advancement for people of modest means,” Geller added, before making reference to a $419 million, charter school-friendly bill (HB 7069) lawmakers passed last month: “We’re putting way too much money into non-public education at the expense of public education.”

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The increased funding — addressed in a contentious three-day special session this week — was a compromise between Gov. Rick Scott and House and Senate leaders after Scott a week ago vetoed the Legislature’s initial K-12 budget, deeming it insufficient.

In calling lawmakers back to Tallahassee, Scott asked for $215 million more in state money for K-12 in order to raise the per-pupil level by $100, an increase of 1.4 percent.

That’s what the Legislature ultimately approved on Friday, by votes of 107-6 in the House and 31-4 in the Senate.

The budget lawmakers initially voted for in May increased per-pupil spending only by $24 per student, or 0.34 percent — which was slightly more than what the conservative House originally proposed earlier this year. (By comparison, Scott and the Senate both wanted much higher increases in spending — at least an extra $210 per student from this year.)

For some school districts, the meager increase in the budget lawmakers OK’d in May would have actually cut state aid they rely on to pay for school operations, and educators urged Scott to reject it.

Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a former schools superintendent who now is CEO for the statewide superintendents’ association, said that spending level would have required teachers to be fired and some programs to be cut.

The uncertainty over whether Scott would veto that budget and whether lawmakers would approve a new budget by Friday had sparked some school districts to seek backup plans in case there was no agreement to keep the state’s 4,200 public schools funded on July 1. For instance, Hillsborough County schools on Thursday announced a hiring freeze, blaming the Legislature’s initial budget — and the potential signing of HB 7069 into law — for “forcing us to make extremely difficult decisions.”

The new budget — still subject to Scott’s official approval — would bring the total K-12 budget to $20.6 billion starting July 1. With local dollars, that marks a total increase over this year of $455 million, or 2.3 percent.

On Thursday, the Senate backed off its plan to use property tax revenue to pay for the additional K-12 dollars, agreeing with the House’s method of paying for the extra $215 million using state general revenue — money freed up from Scott’s vetoes handed down last week.

About $150 million of that would be one-time spending that lawmakers would have to make up for in the next budget year in order to keep spending level, or else schools would lose funding in 2018-19.

Although the added dollars are universally welcome, several Democrats in both chambers are unsatisfied.

Six Democrats in the House — almost all from South Florida — opposed the new K-12 budget for that reason. They were Reps. John Cortes of Kissimmee, Kristin Jacobs of Coconut Creek, Evan Jenne of Dania Beach, Kionne McGhee and Cynthia Stafford of Miami and Barbara Watson of Miami Gardens.

Similarly in the Senate, Democrats Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point, Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale and Victor Torres of Orlando also opposed the new level of spending.

“I’m glad we got a little more money ... but I can’t vote for it because it’s not nearly enough,” Farmer said.

House pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr. chided the Democrats for their criticism of the budget.

“It’s interesting to hear the debate when we have members who are going to vote against the highest per-student funding in the history of Florida and the highest FEFP funding in the country,” Diaz said, “so just let that sink in when you vote ‘no’ on this bill.”

The FEFP — the way the state funds K-12 spending — stands for the Florida Education Finance Program, so no other state technically has that. (Diaz said he was simply making a joke with that latter part of his remark.)

But when actually comparing K-12 spending with other states: Florida’s total per-pupil spending would rise to $7,296 in 2017-18 — still far below the national average of $10,600 per student, PolitiFact previously found.

“I’ve been told by some of the people in my district that a $100 increase is an insult based on the fact we lag so far behind the rest of the states nationally,” Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, said. “Yes, this bill will put us at our highest level of education spending ever — and this should be taken as a victory, but really, it is a hollow victory.”

Aside from remaining below the national average, Florida’s spending level also still trails the rate of inflation. Per-pupil spending would have to be around $8,358 for 2017-18 simply to equal the 2007-08 level, PolitiFact reported.

“I know this is an increase; this still isn’t meeting the rate of inflation in terms of additional per-student funding,” Clemens said during a Senate Democrats breakfast meeting Friday. “It’s an increase that’s going to help but it’s not nearly what is required, even if you just look at year-to-year costs.”

Senate Democrats — like a couple House Democrats attempted — used the budget discussion as a way to revive a debate over HB 7069. The legislation passed the Senate by only one vote in May and many traditional public education advocates want Scott to veto it.

The bill heavily favors charter schools through friendly regulations and more taxpayer funding, while taking away significant funding resources from school districts overseeing conventional neighborhood schools.

In the House, Miami Republican Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, the speaker pro tempore who was presiding over the chamber Friday morning, abruptly shut down the Democrats’ remarks on the bill, which isn’t on the limited agenda for the special session.

“We’re not on House Bill 7069 so please keep your comments to this bill,” Nuñez directed Cortes.

Debate rules are more flexible in the Senate, so Democrats there broached the issue uninterrupted when the chamber debated K-12 spending on Friday afternoon.

“There is a context here for talking about House Bill 7069 and how this [extra K-12 money] is not enough to mitigate the damage to our public schools,” Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, of Miami Gardens, said earlier Friday.

“This money is desperately needed but this in no way negates the negative impact of House Bill 7069,” Montford added.

Superintendents, including Miami-Dade’s Alberto Carvalho, oppose the reform bill primarily because it would require school districts to share with privately managed charter schools millions of local taxpayer dollars earmarked for construction, as well as a dwindling pot of federal Title I dollars Florida receives.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Associate Superintendent Iraida Mendez-Cartaya — the district’s lobbyist to the Legislature — addressed House Democrats during their Friday caucus meeting to reiterate the school district’s concerns with HB 7069.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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