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Fla. Puts Focus on Education in Flush Budget Year

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Last year may have been dubbed the "year of education" in Florida's legislature, but this year public schools are again playing a starring role in Tallahassee as lawmakers heatedly debate merit-pay systems for teachers, class-size-reduction proposals, and school voucher plans.

The backdrop for this season's political theater is the state's robust economy. That allowed House and Senate leaders to agree on a $45.3 billion budget last week that included a 4.5 percent increase from last year for K-12 schools, to $734 million--the largest hike in a nearly a decade.

"It's a windfall year," said Derek Newton, a spokesman for Gov. Lawton Chiles. The Democratic governor received the budget April 22, with the legislature still in session, and had seven days to veto it or parts of it before sending it back to the lawmakers, who are scheduled to adjourn this Friday.

If it's a good year for Sunshine State schools, observers say, it's a super year for its state legislators, who, able to provide amply for the basics and then some, are having their proverbial cake and eating it, too.

More than $1 billion in new revenue--thanks not only to the booming economy, but also to new federal dollars and the first installments of the state's $11.3 billion settlement with tobacco companies--has allowed state leaders to underwrite a substantial school budget increase, pay for hundreds of pet projects, and provide some $300 million in tax breaks.

"When times are great," summed up Susan F. MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, "it's wonderful to be a politician."

'Year of the Turkey'

Not everyone in Tallahassee, of course, is singing the praises of the legislature this spring.

Gary Landry, a spokesman for the FEA-United, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, calls this the "year of the turkey" for the pet legislative projects that he said edged out some school issues. Across the state, he said, students won't get the new textbooks they need, teachers won't get the school-supplies stipend lawmakers promised them last year, and class sizes in the most crowded districts aren't likely to budge from where they are now.

Cathy Kelly, director of government relations for the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, cited those same problems when she called the budget "an embarrassment to schools and the state. It's not at all what we had hoped for."

The projects that drew the unions' and others' ire this session included: $1 million for the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Broward County, $870,000 for the Pompano State Farmers Market, and $11.3 million for an auditorium at St. Johns River Community College in Orange Park. As in years past, however, Mr. Chiles is likely to use his line-item veto to kill many such programs, according to Mr. Newton.

"We've got more than $1 billion in wasteful 'turkey' projects in the budget, and yet there are kids around the state using textbooks that have Ronald Reagan as president," Mr. Landry said. "[Lawmakers] have the money this year to take care of these problems and really make an investment in education, and they're wasting it."

But leaders in the House and the Senate insist that their budget covers the education bases.

"There's a substantial increase in almost every education program, so I'm not sure where this criticism is coming from," said Karen Chandler, a spokeswoman for Republican Senate President Toni Jennings, a former public school teacher. "Virtually all of the Senate seems pleased" with the increases.

Ms. MacManus of the University of South Florida echoed that sentiment, saying that the budget reflects the priorities of everyday Floridians, many of whom do not have school-age children.

"What's turkey to some is lean meat to others," she said. "Schools fared better than they have in years. It comes down to the education community versus everybody else."

Although a parade of parents and teachers marched to Tallahassee last month to complain about textbook shortages, efforts to highlight the issue stalled after the state education department reported that $26 million earmarked for textbooks in the 1996-97 school year went unspent. Still, lawmakers voted to increase textbook funding more than 17 percent in fiscal 1999, to $184 million.

And since 1995, the legislature has spent a total of $240 million on reducing class sizes to an average of 20 students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Lawmakers put another $100 million toward that effort this session, while also shifting that K-3 goal to 24 students for most schools and to 16 students in schools deemed "critically low-performing" by the state.

Unfinished Debate

On school supplies, the legislature allocated $250 per teacher during a special legislative session last November, but that amount was cut to $100 this session. The reduction, according to Ms. MacManus, "hardly resonates" with constituents in a year where so much new money is going to schools.

And after much rancor over merit-pay systems, the legislature voted to pay for a $12 million Excellent Teaching Program providing salary boosts that could, according to teachers' unions, average about $7,000 in additional pay for teachers who receive accreditation from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards--a program the unions support.

Lawmakers also funded a separate merit-pay program, a $26 million bonus system based on evaluations by peers, parents, and school administrators. That plan does not have the support of the unions, which call such a system a subjective popularity contest.

One of the most contentious bills this session had yet to be decided last week. Still under debate is a school voucher bill that would provide tuition vouchers to low-income families to send their children to private--including religious--prekindergarten and kindergarten programs. Emotions were running so high during a House debate on vouchers earlier this month that two lawmakers, Reps. Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat and Carlos L. Valdes, both Miami Republicans, got into a fistfight on the House floor.

Gov. Chiles has said that he opposes school vouchers because they would divert needed money and focus from public schools.

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