Editorials

A mixed bag on Gov. Rick Scott's K-12 education proposals

Gov. Rick Scott's support of K-12 education scores another high mark with a record-setting budget proposal for 2015-2016. The total of $19.75 billion puts the state on a path of spending $7,176 per student, some $216 more than the current budget and breaking the 2007-2008 historic high by $50.

This comes two years after the governor increased education spending by $1 billion, one year after he requested a $540 million increase and four years after he proposed slashing the K-12 budget by $3.3 billion, something the Legislature could not swallow, only approving a $1.3 billion reduction. With the student population rising, however, the per pupil spending suffered.

This year as Florida continues to implement the state's version of Common Core, called Florida Standards, school districts need all the resources they can acquire to fulfill the technology requirements of new computerized testing and the mandate to invest more in electronic books.

Public education can only fulfill policy goals with sufficient funds, and the governor's budget request will help those efforts.

But even with per student funding on the rise, the federal government's inflation calculator shows the new mark falls short of the record. Still, this is another move in the right direction for public school funding.

National ranking drops

Scott has long touted Florida's schools as among the best in the nation -- a major economic development factor in attracting new businesses and job growth. But in new national education rankings released earlier this month, Florida lost its usual top 10 placement -- earning sixth in the previous rankings in 2013 -- and plunged all the way down to 28th.

This year, Education Week's "Quality Counts" rankings come from a modified formula that places greater emphasis on outcomes instead of policies and procedures. Previously, Florida's system for grading and evaluating schools boosted its ranking, but those criteria were dropped.

The new ratings are based on school financing, student achievement and a so-called "chance for success" index that gauges parent and family backgrounds; five areas in school years, and adult outcomes. Florida fared poorly on finance (37th) and chance for success (34th), but scored remarkably high on student achievement (seventh).

With almost an additional $1 billion in the governor's 2015-2016 proposal, the state could earn a higher ranking in the finance category next year. The low chance for success rating should prompt Florida to boost efforts in those areas.

One way would be to restore the eligibility standards for Bright Futures scholarships.

Tougher requirements adopted in 2011 have reduced the number of students qualifying for these college and university scholarships. A 2013 University of South Florida report predicted the number of freshmen winning these scholarships would plummet from 30,954 to 15,711.

The tougher standards hit low-income and minority students the hardest, Florida's universities discovered in a statistical analysis. Some 62 percent of black university students, 47 percent of Hispanic students and 32 percent of white students who met Bright Futures requirements in 2012 did not meet 2013's tougher rules.

The Office for Civil Rights concluded that changing the minimum SAT/ACT scores had produced "statistically significant disparities, by race, even amongst otherwise qualified applicants."

While Scott proposed allocating $23.5 million to expand Bright Futures to pay for summer courses, that fails to address the thousands of young adults who no longer qualify, many of whom cannot afford the tuition or the debt from loans.

Meanwhile, Florida's 28th place in the nation for K-12 education -- in the middle of the pack -- is not something to boast about in job recruitment pitches.

Charters favored again

The governor's fondness for charter schools comes across once again with his recommendation that $100 million be spent for construction and maintenance of those institutions. He would not comment on funding for public schools in announcing his proposal earlier this month.

During the 2014-2015 budget cycle, traditional schools got more than $100 million, though almost $60 million went to seven small counties. Charters received some $75 million.

That was a break from the trend that began in 2011, when public school systems began getting almost nothing out of the Public Education Capital Outlay trust fund while charters prospered handsomely.

Lawmakers justify this imbalance by citing school districts' ability to levy property taxes for construction and maintenance, but Tallahassee has handcuffed local systems from raising millage rates.

While the Republican-controlled Legislature and the governor tout their tax-cutting bona fides, the rationale that traditional schools can raise property taxes is hypocritical.

There should be some balance brought to this widely criticized favoritism toward charter schools.

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