TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott has declared in stops throughout the state that his new spending plan for the coming year includes “historic funding” for Florida's schoolchildren.
Scott has indeed proposed half a billion dollars more than last year in his fiscal 2014 budget for kindergarten-through-12th grade education — a total of $18.84 billion in state and local dollars out of a total Florida budget of $74.19 billion.
What's more, he notes, the state's contribution of $10.6 billion is the highest ever.
But critics, including leading Florida Democrats, say the plan falls short of any historic claims in the measurement that matters most and the one used to quickly compare complex education budgets across years and states: per-student spending.
By this measure, Scott's proposal of $6,949 is still below the 2007-08 high of $7,126. Even total state spending would fall short of that truly historic year by $1.5 billion when adjusted for inflation.
For their part, Scott's backers note that this was before the hit to the economy and government spending that came with the Great Recession.
The U.S. Census Bureau's latest per-student spending numbers by state are from fiscal year 2011. That year, Florida's spending was higher than only 12 other states. Utah's was the lowest and New York's was the highest.
“That's the hard part, knowing what the money is actually buying,” said Patrice Iatarola, a professor of education policy at Florida State University. “What's the true quality of education?”
The slicing and dicing gets confusing and Scott, already facing a tough re-election fight this year, has stuck to talking points under questioning.
“My job right now is to make sure we continue to fund education,” he said earlier this month. “If you look at the future of our state, what do families care about? 'I want a job, I want a job, I want a job.' I want to make sure my children get a great education.”
He often quotes a single metric to demonstrate success under his administration — that Florida's fourth-graders are “No. 2 in the world” in reading comprehension. The results are from the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy study, conducted in 2001, 2006 and 2011.
Other broad-based comparisons do not rate a mention in Scott's presentations: Florida's eighth-graders are ranked 32nd in reading in the United States, for example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and the state's high school graduation rate is 85.8 percent, No. 34 nationally, according to the census.
Education Week's Quality Counts, a yearly grading of the states' schools that came out last month, gave Florida's teachers a “B” and its standards and accountability an “A.”
But it also gave a “C” in K-12 achievement — and a “C-minus” in school funding.
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Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said schoolchildren's needs have outpaced the money proposed by Scott, mentioning increases in the number of poor and homeless.
“The needs for Florida students continue to grow and the mandates passed down from elected leaders continue to multiply,” Ford said, speaking of more demanding teacher assessments weighted toward student test scores.
State government's funding of education has represented 18 percent of overall state outlays, less than the nationwide average of 20 percent, according to research by J. Edwin Benton, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Be wary of claims of increasing resources when other states haven't caught up since the recession, Benton said.
“In other words, it's a hollow victory if you say got better when everyone else just got worse,” he said.
State Rep. Reggie Fullwood, a Jacksonville Democrat, pressed Scott's budget director on the per student spending with a question at a House Appropriations meeting last week.
Fullwood asked Cynthia Kelly if there had been any discussion when putting together the budget about per pupil amounts. Kelly didn't answer directly.
“Based on the funds that were available, we were able to get to the highest level of total funding,” she said. “That was the focus.”
And Kim McDougal, Scott's education policy coordinator, told a Senate education panel last week the only reason per student funding isn't at an all-time high is because thousands more students are expected.
Roughly 12,500 new students will fill the state's schools next academic year, according to the state's Education Estimating Conference.
“We'll keep working on it,” McDougal said. “I could never predict what this governor will do next year. Everything that I know, he wants to keep investing in education.”
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Still, Scott's biggest adversary may be a fickle electorate.
“The political culture of the state results in an unwillingness to spend more on education,” writes Benton in a forthcoming edition of “Government and Politics in Florida.”
“Floridians favor improvement in the quality of K-12 and higher education but they tend to oppose higher taxes, fees, and bonded indebtedness,” he said.
“Yet, when asked what programs the state legislature should cut first to balance the state budget during the most recent Great Recession, the smallest proportion of respondents (4 percent) indicated 'education,'” Benton added.
The last Sunshine State Survey, conducted in 2011, showed 25 percent of respondents saying the state government is doing a “poor” job at education. Another 36 percent believed state leaders are doing a “fair” job. The survey, started by the nonprofit business-government partnership Leadership Florida, is being taken over by the University of South Florida.
Even though he was faced with budget shortfalls, Scott was bashed his first year in office for reducing education spending by $1 billion. In an about-face, he proposed adding $1 billion each of the next two years.
But it's not clear how much of the funding boost will go to improving quality and how much will be needed just to handle extra bodies in the classroom.
Ongoing debate over the new Common Core educational standards complicate the discussion.
These standards, which lay out what students need to know in English language arts and math, are supposed to fully replace the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards in the 2014-15 school year.
Common Core standards are designed to be more rigorous and emphasize critical thinking skills.
It's still not clear which test the state will use to measure whether students are hitting the Common Core standards, though Scott pushed for a reworking of the standards based on public input and renamed them “Florida Standards.”
Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, commended the governor's effort to put more money toward schools this year, but said it still doesn't bring the state to the level it needs to be.
“The reality is we are still at the bottom of the barrel in terms of states across the country,” she said. “We like to make a lot of sweeping changes in Florida and not back any of it up in terms of giving people the time and tools, financial or otherwise, to do them well.”
As one example, Baxter-Jenkins said Florida adopted the Common Core and is moving toward a new testing system without providing extra money to make it work.
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School districts across the state are working to put technology in place to give the test on computers next year. “We are changing what we expect of kids, yet we expect teachers to manage all of this,” Baxter-Jenkins said. “It's great we haven't taken money away from schools, but we are not supporting schools the way we need to.”
Hillsborough County, with the eighth-largest public school district in the country, has been helped, she said, by a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to revamp how teachers are trained and evaluated.
“The biggest thing we need to do is keep that money in classrooms, directly benefitting students, whether it's by making sure we hire people with good salaries and train them well or (through) classroom resources,” she said.
Hillsborough County school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said it is still too early to tell what the governor's education budget, if passed, would mean for the district and the 200,000-plus students it serves.
“We're just getting started with the budget process,” Hegarty said. “It's a good start. It looks like more than last year, (but) doesn't get us back to where we were in 2007-08.”
Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego is one of 30 superintendents from across the state who met with the governor Tuesday to discuss the budget and air concerns about funding.
“We tried to communicate the tremendous needs we have in maintenance repairs, everything from technology infrastructure to school bus replacement, and also basic funding for students,” Grego said.
“I don't think people realize that we're still not out of the recession. Things are looking better, but we need to be mindful that we are not back to an optimal level of funding.”
He added that the difference between what a dollar is worth today and in 2007 should be considered. An Algebra 1 textbook today costs $70.82, compared to the $53.58 it would have cost in 2007, he said.
“Yet in this current budget, for instructional materials alone in Pinellas County, we are faced with a reduction of about $2.5 million compared to 2007,” he said.
“Everything's relative and the world doesn't stay still. The cost of living is going up.”
Kourkounis reported from Tampa. Tribune writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.