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Florida Raises School Aid, But Declines To Revamp Finance Formula

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Florida legislators approved a hefty 11.6 percent increase in state school aid before adjourning June 2, but declined to adopt a new funding formula that backers claimed would have made the state's system the most equitable in the nation.

Lawmakers earmarked $5.3 billion for precollegiate education in the upcoming fiscal year, a $555-million increase over the current spending level.

"This is probably one of the best years we've had in 15 to 18 years'' with regard to the education budget, said Senator Robert Johnson, chairman of the Senate education committee. "Every educator I've talked to is pleased with where we are."

Florida's education community, however, failed in its attempt to gain a complete overhaul of the school-funding formula. The measure, which died in the Senate appropriations committee, was endorsed by 66 of the state's 67 districts, its two major teachers' unions, and the state school-boards and administrators' associations.

Strong Opposition

"The opposition was strong enough to keep it from flying," said John Gaines, executive director of the Florida School Administrators Assocation.

Mr. Gaines blamed members of the Senate appropriation panel for the bill's defeat, saying they refused to relinquish their political control over the allocation of education spending.

"It wasn't a dollar issue," he said. "It was over who controls the allocation of dollars."

Senator Johnson, however, said the amount of additional funding that the new system would have required was disputed. Supporters said implementing the formula would have cost $92 million, but critics estimated it would take $150 million.

He added that some lawmakers from areas that receive special benefits under the current system had a "vested interest" in seeing that it remained unchanged.

Senator Johnson also indicated the education community should bear some responsibility for the bill's rejection because it underestimated the difficulty of getting the measure through the legislature.

"The coalition held together, but it basically didn't do anything until the last 10 days of the session," said Mr. Johnson. By the time the coalition mobilized its forces, he said, it was too late.

Mr. Gaines said the education community would bring the issue before lawmakers again next year. Senator Johnson noted that Gov. Bob Martinez, who had expressed concern about the program's cost, agreed to meet with school officials in August and to create a model budget using the proposed formula.

Lottery Dispute

Much of the increase in school aid was financed by state lottery revenues. Although legislators had4pledged to use lottery proceeds only to "enhance" education programs, they killed measures that would have prohibited them from using lottery profits for basic-education programs.

"You can argue all day long if [the funding increase] was for enhancement or not," said Senator Johnson. "In my opinion, when you look at the Florida tax base and the horrendous growth [in enrollments], it's tough enough to try to hold on."

Mr. Johnson said half of the combined $900-million increase in state and local funding next year will be used to cover the costs of higher enrollment.

State officials recently estimated that districts will have 82,000 more students in the next school year, up from the 60,000 increase projected last fall. Many of the new students are refugees from Nicaragua and other Central American nations. The federal government has thus far rejected the state's pleas for additional assistance.

To help districts cope with the situation, lawmakers agreed to let them raise their property-tax rate for school construction from 1.5 to 2 mills. The change is expected to raise an additional $60 million.

Other Action

In other action, lawmakers:

Approved financial incentives for districts to experiment with school-based management. To obtain funding, districts must secure agreements with teachers through the collective-bargaining process, and submit plans to the state education agency.

Agreed to deny drivers' licenses to students who drop out of school before they reach 18.

Doubled funding, to $50 million, for the state's prekindergarten program.

Created a "Good Start" program in the health department to identify infants who may encounter difficulty in school because they have teenage mothers, learning disabilities, or low birth weights.

Established a companion "First Start" program, in which districts and community agencies will train parents of children with special problems to become their children's first teachers.

Declined to enact legislation relating to the "official English" constitutional amendment adopted by voters last fall.

"All of our official documents are already maintained in English," said Senator Johnson.

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