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Crist: Use Gaming Funds to Boost School Spending

Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday proposed boosting school spending by $535.5 million next year, increasing per-student spending by $179 despite a projected budget hole, using a tentative Seminole gaming deal to come up with the cash.

In rolling out a planned $22.7 billion schools budget during an appearance in St. Petersburg, Crist proposed using $443 million from the Seminole gaming compact, though it so far has been rejected by lawmakers.

The increase would take spending to $7,045 per student in Florida public schools.

“Florida’s young people deserve a solid educational foundation for their futures, and we cannot – and must not – let them down,” Crist said in a statement released by his office.

Florida's schools have been hit over the past few years with state budget cuts hacking away at funding for teachers, extra curricular programs and advanced placement classes. In 2007-2008, the per pupil spending was $7,126 and the following year it was $6,844. In the current year, the state originally budgeted $6,873 per student, but more students than expected enrolled in public school, causing the per pupil student funding to decrease slightly.

And with a projected shortfall of about $3 billion for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, lawmakers have been preparing to pare down the budget more, with schools bracing for the possibility that they’ll see some of those cuts, with education making up such a huge chunk of the state's overall spending.
The governor's proposed increase appears to hinge on a gaming agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that has repeatedly failed to make it through the Legislature. The state and the tribe have been negotiating for over two years on a deal that would provide the state with revenue from tribal casinos in exchange for letting the tribe offer games that other establishments cannot.

The agreement could bring in millions of dollars to the state over the next several years, but many lawmakers are squeamish at the prospect of massively expanding gaming in the state. A House committee recently voted down a compact negotiated by the governor and the tribe by a unanimous vote, bringing everyone back to the starting point.

“I've got come concerns about where the money is going to have to come from,” said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow. “I think the governor's budget is relying on gaming agreements with the Seminole Tribe, and I kind of got the impression that wasn't going anywhere.”

The House PreK-12 Appropriations committee has been conducting an exercise where members prioritize education budget items. House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairwoman Anitere Flores instructed members to list their top priorities, and said the committee will debate them in February. Then, the exercise will be repeated with members listing what could be slashed.

Flores said Monday she was “encouraged” that the governor's priorities match the Legislature's commitment to increasing funding for education, but noted that the Legislature cannot craft a budget based on assumptions.

“The governor has certain assumptions in his budget that the legislative body doesn’t have yet,” Flores said. “Of course the most glaring of that is the Seminole gaming compact. That's not something that the Legislature has approved or the Seminole tribe.”

House Democrats praised the governor's proposal.

“We're encouraged that he's trying to fund education … instead of making cuts,” said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West.

Saunders also said that he has some concerns about other proposals that are a part of the education budget, such as legislation to amend the class size provision of the Constitution and that he wants to know more about those proposals.

Crist is backing legislation that would revise the way schools would comply with classroom size requirements. A 2002 Constitutional amendment mandated that by 2010 there would be no more than 18 students in pre-kindergarten through third grades, 22 students in fourth through eighth grades, and 25 students in ninth through 12th grades.

Crist is asking that schools meet a school-wide class-size average instead of a hard per classroom cap. The proposal would also be written so that no individual class would exceed the limit by three or more students in kindergarten through third grade and no more than five students in grades four through 12.

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