Teachers get a top focus in Florida governor’s budget

To better recruit and retain quality teachers for Florida's K-12 public schools, Gov. Rick Scott wants the state to spend $58 million in the next budget year on a handful of initiatives.
To better recruit and retain quality teachers for Florida's K-12 public schools, Gov. Rick Scott wants the state to spend $58 million in the next budget year on a handful of initiatives. AP

To better recruit and retain quality teachers for Florida’s K-12 public schools, Gov. Rick Scott wants the state to spend $58 million in the next budget year on a handful of initiatives — and those don’t include a controversial teacher bonus plan that lawmakers, with Scott’s support, have advanced in recent years.

“Teachers are key to preparing our future generations for great careers,” Scott said Tuesday when rolling out priorities of his 2017-18 budget proposal during a news conference in Tallahassee. “We have to make investments to recruit and retain the best educators in our classrooms.”

Specifically, Scott proposes:

▪  $15 million to eliminate initial and renewal certification fees for teachers;

▪  $10 million for “a one-time hiring bonus for teachers testing in the top 10 percent of the Subject Area Examination in the subject they are teaching in the 2017-2018 school year”;

▪  $5 million to “increase the diversity of teachers in critical shortage and high-need areas”;

▪  $5.9 million to “recruit Bright Futures scholars that major in education and commit to 4 years of teaching following graduation in the rural districts from which they graduate high school”;

▪  $16 million for school districts to “implement targeted recruitment and retention initiatives that meet the district’s need”;

▪  And, $6 million to “reward great teachers in low-performing schools.”

Lawmakers will need to decide whether to include Scott’s recommendations when they formally craft and vote on next year’s budget in the upcoming legislative session, which begins in March.

Scott’s proposed a $83.5 billion state budget proposal on Tuesday that would cut $618 million in taxes mostly for business, boost education funding and would revive a state job incentive program the Legislature eviscerated last year.

Scott said decreasing taxes, even though mostly for businesses, helps all Floridians.

“When jobs are created, it helps the poorest, most disadvantaged families who need a job the most,” Scott said Tuesday.

But the tax-cut plans and his quest revive the state’s program to give tax breaks to private businesses has already been coldly received by state lawmakers who say tough budget conditions will make both ideas difficult to agree to.

While Scott as governor is required to propose an annual state budget, it is the Florida Legislature that must pass a spending plan. Scott does have veto powers to remove funding from the budget.

On education, Scott is proposing a 4 percent increase in combined state and local funding for schools. That would boost funding from $20.2 billion to almost $21 billion and increase per pupil funding from $7,204.58 to $7,420.99, if agreed to by the Legislature.

Most of that increase in spending would come from local property tax dollars, which would account for nearly $558 million of the extra dollars.

Scott insisted that the additional money required from local property taxes don’t amount to a tax increase, because — although homeowners will pay more on their tax bill because of higher property values — the tax rate isn’t changing.

“If we’re going to make Florida the best state for future generations we have to invest in our students,” Scott said.

Part of that commitment, he said, is the $58 million in teacher recruitment and retention initiatives. Unlike last year, Scott isn’t recommending the controversial “Best and Brightest” teacher bonuses, which reward “highly effective” teachers based on their high school ACT/SAT scores.

The bonuses — the brainchild of and a priority of the Florida House for the past few years — have come under severe scrutiny, because there’s no proven correlation between high school test scores and one’s ability to be an effective teacher.

Lawmakers this year, particularly in the Senate, are exploring alternative ways to reward promising teachers, which could lead to the end of “Best and Brightest.” The State Board of Education has also called for ending the program.

Other proposals highlighted by Scott on Tuesday:

▪ $360 million for water quality projects including $65 million for Florida’s springs, $60 million for Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee clean-up efforts; and $225 million for Everglades restoration funding.

▪ $454 million in cuts to sales tax on commercial leases for businesses.

▪ $38 million in pay raises for corrections officers and $5 million for signing bonuses of up to $1,000 for officers at understaffed prisons, and $2.5 million to increase pay for officers assigned to prisons with mental health units.

▪ $5.8 million for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to hire 46 new employees dedicated to counterterrorism.

For the first time in five years, Scott’s budget calls for no cuts in staff at the state Department of Health and county health offices. Those cuts were criticized last year by lawmakers who said disease outbreaks were exacerbated by the cuts.

However, there remain 1,500 “phantom” jobs currently authorized by the Legislature but not filled by the health department. That trend could continue.

Scott’s budget calls for nine additional employees to help put in place a medical marijuana program under the voter-approved Amendment 2, as well as 21 new epidemiologists to address outbreaks like Zika.

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