Lawmakers Hunting for Money for Public Schools
Florida education officials are trying to cobble together an application for millions of dollars in federal grant money as state lawmakers and educators across the state are worried about where they will get money for next year's public school budget.
The state's public schools have had a series of ups and downs in the past year. Graduation rates are higher than ever before and test scores have improved slightly. But, funding has been on a downward spiral. In 2007-2008, the per pupil spending was $7,126, the following year it was $6,844, and this year it is $6,873.
And the loss of funding has meant layoffs and program cuts at schools across the state. It has also made it difficult for some schools to comply with class size requirements. Currently, 72 schools across the state are in violation of a constitutional requirement mandating certain class sizes per grade level.
One school district – Jefferson County – is even in financial distress, meaning it has an unreserved fund balance of less than 2.5 percent of its general funds. That's better than a year ago when eight districts were considered to be in financial distress.
A group of parents, students and education advocates also have sued the state for failing to provide a quality education for the state's students.
And now, lawmakers are looking ahead to next year, trying to figure out where to get the money for the state's schools.
“I'm very worried,” said state Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, who is the House Democrats' point man on the education budget committee. “Actually, I'm scared to death.”
Though state economists are predicting a strengthening economy that will bring in more money than was originally expected, they still expect to see a shortfall of more than $2 billion for the 2010-2011 budget cycle. That will likely mean cuts across the board, and state agency heads have been presenting potential budget scenarios to lawmakers that include a 10 percent cut to their various departments.
Last year, lawmakers passed a cigarette tax increase and a host of other fees to help patch up budget holes, but as of yet there has been little discussion of bringing in new revenue in next year’s session.
For education, that likely translates into cuts for programs like teacher development and training, state Education Commissioner Eric Smith told a gathering of House Democrats Wednesday.
“Those kinds of things are probably what would be on the chopping block,” he said.
Smith and legislators are hoping that stimulus money will help cushion the blow for public schools and the department's training programs, but there's no guarantee. In addition, they're really hoping for a cut of the federal money that's a part of Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competitive grant program.
Smith and his staff have been working on the application for the grant money, which is due in mid-January. The state could see anywhere from $350 million to $700 million if the U.S. Department of Education approves the state's application.
The state has to submit a “bold” application that shows a commitment to moving the state's schools forward and particularly address the most problematic schools, under the application’s requirements. The state must also demonstrate an ability to carry out its plans. And Florida will get extra points in the application process if it can get various players in each school district to sign a memorandum of understanding that they will all work together on a program with the federal money.
Smith said the response so far has been good, and that many different parties – the teacher unions, school boards, and superintendents – have all been cooperatively working together on ideas for the application. Hopefully, it will translate into a win for the state, he said.
“If we agree to sit at the dinner table, can we dine civilly in a way that benefits everybody?” Smith asked.
Lawmakers will start to delve more seriously into the state budget issues when the Legislature begins consecutive committee weeks in January and February and then moves into the full legislative session in March. Meanwhile, Smith and his staff are continuing to corral school district officials from across the state into signing on to their potential application. They will find out in April whether the state will get the money.
“It really is a race,” Smith said.