State board set to request more money for schools

The Florida Board of Education appears ready to request another record figure of per-student funding for public education, setting a starting point for what is annually one of the most politically charged debates over the state budget.

But the increase is likely to draw some of the same complaints as it has in the past: While the proposed per-student spending is more than ever in raw numbers, it has not kept up with inflation since a previous high-water mark was set nearly a decade ago.

A draft of the request, posted on the Department of Education's website Thursday, proposes spending almost $20.9 billion in state and local tax dollars next year through the main formula for funding public education in Florida, an increase of $721.6 million.

The request is set to be adopted by the board at its meeting Friday, then sent to Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders for use in crafting the overall state spending plan for the fiscal year that will start July 1.

On a per-student basis, the figure would grow from $7,183.92 in the current budget year to $7,359.85 next year. That represents growth of almost 2.5 percent. That is slightly above the amount that state economists project would flow to schools based on increased tax dollars from local property values if the state invested nothing more.

That could allow state budget-writers to substantially increase funding for education with only a portion of the new funding --- about $222.2 million --- coming from a state budget already expected to be stretched thin. But it also could tangle the politics of the issue after lawmakers and Scott trumpeted an effort this year to hold property taxes flat, offsetting the lost income with state money.

That left room for just a 1 percent increase in student funding this year.

While Scott and other state leaders have bragged about increasing spending on state schools to record levels, the Florida Education Association teachers union has disputed that idea, saying those pronouncements don't account for inflation since the 2007-08 budget year, when legislators hit what used to be the historical record.

"Florida's public schools and their students continue to make gains despite tepid financial support from the state," said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the union. "When adjusted for inflation, this proposed budget still doesn't equal what we were investing on our public schools a decade ago."

The plan to be considered by the board Friday would also do away with the Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program --- which received $49 million in the current budget year. Instead, the department would create a $43 million program that would "support bonuses for new teachers who show great potential for and veteran teachers who have demonstrated the highest student academic growth among their peers," according to meeting materials.

Best and Brightest has been controversial because it bases teacher bonuses on educators' scores on college-admissions tests.

State officials were traveling for the board meeting, which will be held in Tampa, and could not immediately be reached to further explain the changes.

In higher education, the budget requests an additional $29.1 million for the Bright Futures scholarship program to cover the costs of expanding the scholarships to cover summer courses. And a program aimed at drawing high-achieving students who receive national merit scholarship recognition to Florida colleges would grow by more than 41 percent, to $18.2 million.


Information provided by The News Service of Florida.