The Manatee County School District, board and parents have friends in the Florida Senate. Prominent senators expressed support for a host of priorities that match key local aspirations – none more important than their steadfast advocacy of public schools. At this month’s annual Joint Conference of the Florida School Board Association, four senators who hold influential posts on either education or state spending or both outlined their chief goals in the coming regular session of the Legislature, which opens in March.
When the Central Florida School Board Association, which includes Manatee’s board, met in Tampa ahead of the larger conference, state funding of public education rose to the top of the issues — as expected. Over the past 16 years, the state has slashed all district revenue sources by $2.7 billion, recurring revenue vital to stability and progress. Last year, the Legislature cut property tax rates, leaving districts once again scrambling to meet necessities.
The senators vowed to pump as much money as achievable into public education, though the competition for dollars will be intense as state economists forecast a $1.3 billion budget shortfall by 2018. However, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the chamber’s Appropriations Committee chairman, informed the gathering that any education budget increase would be small — on the condition that lawmakers let districts maintain or boost local property tax rates. Thus, the burden falls on district taxpayers, not the state budget
The senators also promised to push for pay increases for teachers. Statewide, many school districts and teachers unions are at loggerheads over tight budgets and low salaries. The issue in Manatee County is the soaring cost of health insurance for teachers with spouses or families, not only offsetting the raise the district is offering but digging deep into their income — which amounts to a pay cut.
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Manatee also seeks more local control over the funds dedicated to school construction and upgrades. The senators did not address the spending authority concern. They should.
Manatee Superintendent Diana Greene brought up a pivotal point — outside the Central Florida coalition’s priorities but nonetheless important to education — that a 2016 law handcuffing district discretion by regulating spending on new school construction by the square foot. With the state’s prominent emphasis on education in the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — this law puts a contradictory restriction on the development of labs and other expensive and technology-intense resources. This law should be scrapped.
Parents, teachers, school districts and boards have been clamoring for a reduction in testing for years, and some parents took action on their own — instructing their third-grade children to avoid taking the state’s standardized reading test. The so-called opt-out movement has gained statewide attention, and the four senators agree that fewer tests are a necessary reform. That is a refreshing position given the Legislature’s history of mandating test after test, all in the name of accountability — which can be ascertained with fewer exams. Recently, though, lawmakers set caps on tests required by both the state and districts, but more should be done. As one of the senators said, school districts support a “strong, fair” accountability policy but the state has “overloaded” the system.
Latvala took on an issue bound to inflame already simmering agenda differences between the House and Senate — choice programs that include charter schools, which are privately run schools that draw public funds while being exempt from many state regulations. Latvala wants to put choice programs on the same footing as public schools — adding accountability measures demanded by law of school districts. As he says, the same set of standards should apply to one and all since charters receive the same amount of money per student as public schools.
That reasonable and equitable position should be embraced by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, whose wife established a Pasco County charter school which holds an A rating from the state. He pledges reforms on charters because it is “good governance,” though exactly what that means is unknown. His call for “free-market principles” in education is viewed as support for more charter schools, and since the more conservative House is a bastion of school choice, Corcoran’s reforms are unlikely to clamp down on charters.
Education will once again be a focal point in the Legislature. At the Central Florida School Board Association meeting, Osceola County School Board member Jay Wheeler put the issue of dealing with lawmakers in sharp perspective: “In their cloistered ignorance, they can’t believe (current laws) are wrong.” But hope springs eternal.