THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Some Wins, Some Losses For Florida Schools

May 5, 2009


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 5, 2009….. A legislative session that public school teachers had feared might leave schools scarred by layoffs and program cuts didn’t turn out quite so bad, education advocates said as they await a final vote on the state budget.

Per pupil funding has remained relatively steady in the final product, which was the biggest concern of school districts that weren’t sure where else to cut. Already, schools were talking about layoffs and salary cuts. Fine arts would have to take a back seat, and family and community members in some districts were being asked to donate supplies such as pencils and toilet paper.

Further cuts would have devastated them, school advocates said.

“I think we worked real hard this session to try to mitigate the worst damage that was being suggested and I think the whole idea of actually raising funding was a positive …because six months ago there was no talk about that,” said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow. “It was all cutting, all slashing. So we’re glad about that. But it’s all triage work.”

Early on, as lawmakers conducted budget workshops, they weighed whether other education budget items were as important as the per pupil funding. The end product was a few dollars more for per pupil funding. It rose from $6,844 this past year to $6,872 for the upcoming year.

“At a time when we are experiencing historical deficits, to say that student funding has been increased is a victory,” said House PreK-12 Appropriations Chair Anitere Flores, R-Miami. “While certainly in times of plenty we will be looking to do more.”

Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday, at an appearance in Pensacola, praised the Legislature for increasing basic education spending by $1.2 billion and said he’ll probably sign the budget in a couple weeks.

The final budget product, to be voted on and sent to Crist by lawmakers on Friday, also allows schools to lengthen their days to meet an hourly equivalent for the normally required 180 school days. This would allow school districts to go to four day weeks if necessary to cut some costs.

Not every education initiative was so clear cut as the need for direct school funding. Both chambers squabbled over whether there was a need to tweak constitutionally mandated class size requirements that some school districts said were overly cumbersome.

Current law would allow no more than 18 students per class in grades PreK through third, no more than 22 in grades four through eight, and no more than 25 in grades nine through 12, by the start of the 2010 school year.But school district leaders have said the standards are too difficult to implement. Principals said they feared having to break up classes mid year if a student moved into the district, pushing them over the class size limits. It could mean building new classrooms and hiring more teachers mid year.

The House pushed through a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the schools to meet grade level averages instead of individual classroom caps. But the measure died in the Senate, where Senate President Jeff Atwater said the proposal just didn’t have the votes. Senate leaders even briefly backed an idea tying a class size change to a penny tax increase for education, which Democrats wanted, in hopes of gaining more support. But, the idea failed to gain traction.

“I’m disappointed, but at the same time, hey, there’s always next year and we’ll come back and try to work it again,” said Rep. William Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who sponsored the House proposal to change the class size requirement. 

Democrats, on the other hand, were rejoicing at the measure’s demise, saying it would erase learning gains that students have made since the voters approved the initial constitutional class size reduction in 2002.

“I think that we can work to provide them a little more funding but we have to do it in a much different way than this bad proposal was,” said Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, the Democrats’ education point man.

Both chambers approved a measure that would expand the pool of money that the state’s largest voucher program can pull from.

The Corporate Income Tax Credit Scholarship program offers about 24,000 students scholarships worth $3,950 each, so that low income students can attend private institutions. The program is capped at $118 million by legislative mandate, but it was not bringing in that much money per year. HB 453, which is on its way to the governor’s desk, would allow additional companies to contribute to the fund in exchange for a tax credit.

House and Senate Republicans plugged it as a way to provide more educational opportunities to Florida students, while most Democrats and the teachers’ union said it took money away from public schools.

Education advocates have long compared U.S. standards to that of other countries, saying that U.S. students often fall short of their foreign colleagues in math and science.

In response, several House and Senate members proposed upping the graduation standards for Florida students so they would have to take algebra and chemistry. The measure passed by a 75-42 vote in the House, but never came to a vote in the Senate.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, said many lawmakers wanted more time to talk to teachers and other educational professionals to see how it would impact the schools. Many proponents said the changes would have no cost, which some lawmakers and teachers disputed.

Altman said it will likely be reintroduced next year.

“It’s too important,” Altman said last week. “The fact that we’re not offering chemistry as a basic class that kind of makes us third world. If we’re going to be a modern country, we need to have physics, chemistry and have biology. We need to teach these important math and science classes. It’s critically important.”