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Florida Educators Promoting Measure To Narrow Gap in Per-Pupil Spending

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In an unprecedented show of unity, Florida educators are backing a measure that they say would give the state one of the most highly equalized school-funding systems in the nation.

According to supporters, the bill would narrow the percentage gap in per-pupil spending between Florida's richest and poorest school districts from its current level of 23 percent to 7 percent. If the expenditures of Florida's wealthiest district are not counted, they say, the difference would shrink to less than 2 percent.

"This would make us almost totally equalized," said Woodrow J. Darden, a consultant to the Florida Association of School Administrators, which crafted the bill along with the Florida School Boards Association after two years of study.

Mr. Darden said if the bill becomes law, only Hawaii, which operates a single statewide school system, would have greater funding equity.

The measure, which was introduced at the opening of Florida's legislative session last week, is also supported by the state's two major teachers' unions and by 66 of the state's 67 school districts.

Power Equalization

Many school-finance experts say Florida's current system is already one of the most equalized in the nation. But state officials note that an unsuccessful attempt by 22 districts to challenge the system in court pointed to the need for revisions.

The education groups' proposal would adjust Florida's current4school-funding method and add a "power equalization" formula in an effort to equalize the discretionary millage levies, the option tax levied in addition to the minimum rate already required by the state.

Some contend the extra levy is a major source of funding inequities.

The change would require the state to add $490 million to its current $4.5-billion education budget.

The measure would lift the state limit on the amount that districts can raise from discretionary property taxes from 11 percent to 15 percent of their total state aid.

The state would then allow all districts to set their discretionary tax rate at 0.97 mills, which is equal to the rate that Florida's wealthiest district would have to assess to reach the new limit.

The proposal also would eliminate some 70 categorical programs, folding them into the basic state-aid program.

The bill would provide poor and wealthy districts alike with an 8 percent increase in state aid. And in an effort to help rural schools, it would require the state to spend an extra $125 million to fully fund student transportation costs. Florida8now covers only 60 percent of such costs.

Mr. Darden described the bill as a "delicate compromise" that includes a little bit of something for everyone.

"There is something in there that everybody can hate and everybody can love," he said. "If you go to pushing one little piece, you're going to have someone fall out [of the coalition]. We're asking that it be left alone, that it's something everyone has bought into."

The position taken on the bill by the state's largest district, however, indicates how fragile the compromise is.

Thomas Cerra, a lobbyist for the Dade County schools, said Miami educators agreed to support the measure "as part of a good-faith effort" to resolve equity issues. He added, however, that the district may re-evaluate its position as the measure progresses through the legislature.

Dade County officials, he said, will insist that taxpayer equity be considered as important as finance equity in debate over the bill. The state, he said, should pick up the burden of additional financing, rather than require increases in local taxes.

Mr. Darden said the amount that would be needed was only $92 million more than the total school-aid budget being sought by Gov. Bob Martinez. Mr. Cerra disputed that figure, saying the true amount was closer to $200 million.

John Gaines, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators, said the measure"would be good for education and good for the state of Florida."

He said the plan addresses "both the equity issue and the adequacy issue" by providing districts with sufficient funding and flexibility to finance required programs.

Mr. Cerra, however, said Dade County officials believe that addressing the equity question is only the first step toward raising state school aid.

"If we could resolve [the equity issue] once and for all, we could have all 67 districts, school boards, and superintendents united in achieving a greater level of funding," he said.

A spokesman for Governor Martinez was unavailable for comment on the funding proposal.

The Governor did not mention the issue in his April 4 State of the State Address. In his speech, Mr. Martinez called for the creation of a task force to assess the quality of elementary- and middle-school programs; increased funding for pre-kindergarten programs; a new middle-school program for at-risk youths; and $133 million in unrestricted aid to districts.

David Voss, spokesman for Commissioner of Education Betty Castor, said the commissioner supported the finance measure, but also believed provisions should be added to ensure instructional improvement and provide greater accountability to the public.

"The legislature and the public have a right to know what difference it's going to make in a classroom," said Mr. Voss.

Mr. Cerra predicted that the funding-formula proposal would become the overriding education issue faced by the legislature this year.

"My best guess is the final chapter will not be written until the final hour of the session," he said.

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