Legislature's political game with public schools

May 9, 2014 

Florida's Legislature and governor boast about blessing K-12 education with an additional $547.8 million in the coming fiscal year, bringing total spending on public schools to a record $18.9 billion.

On the surface, the infusion of a half billion dollars certainly looks like a banner year for public schools. Dig deeper, though, and another perspective comes to light. Two phrases -- truth in advertising and follow the money -- come into play.

The spending increase is far from state generosity -- especially in a budget year with more than $1.2 billion in new revenue when the Legislature could afford to be friendlier to public schools.

Instead, local property taxes will cover about $400 million of the $547.8 million in extra money, leaving the difference as the state's comparatively meager new investment.

State law forces local governments to impose a property tax, labeling this the "required local effort." After collecting this revenue, the state then sends it back to school districts.

As property values have risen over the past year, so have tax bills -- even as millage rates remain stable. That accounts for the new RLE revenue.

Out of the $18.9 billion in K-12 funding next year, some $8.24 will come from local property taxes. The remainder is paid out of state revenue from the sales tax, corporate income tax, motor vehicle fees and elsewhere.

The upshot of this year's education budget: The burden of paying for public schools is increasing for local property taxpayers, continuing a legislative shift that began in the 1990s with a pause during the recession as property values fell.

When Tallahassee crows about this being a banner year for education -- and those in re-election campaigns will be bragging for months -- remember where the money comes from.

To put this in greater perspective, even while per-student funding increases $176 to reach $6,937 next year, that amount falls short of the record high, $7,126, in 2007-2008.

With enrollment rising across the state, those new dollars won't be totally discretionary as districts hire more teachers and open extra classrooms.

Charter school funding

On another money matter, during Gov. Rick Scott's first three terms, the Legislature allocated some $200 million in capital funds to charter schools while traditional public schools got nothing. Those Public Education Capital Outlay funds pay for the construction and maintenance of public schools.

Considering there are 2.7 million public school students versus about 230,000 in charters, the inherent inequity here has stirred outrage for years.

Those cries have been roundly ignored in the name of school choice, a legislative mantra that falls flat on many levels.

This being an election year, the Legislature changed course -- somewhat. School districts will split $50 million and six rural counties will divvy up $59.7 million. Charter schools are in line for $75 million, again bringing unfairness to PECO funding.

Charter schools, often operated by for-profit management and real estate development companies, spend far less money on instruction than public schools, and they expend large amounts on management fees and leases.

When charter schools close, those capital assets don't revert to the taxpaying public that paid those costs but remain in private hands -- expanding on the inequity.

All this means the state is less than altruistic about traditional public schools but more political, especially in an election year.

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