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Reeling from unprecedented cuts to the state’s K-12 funding in the just-concluded legislative session, Florida school districts are scrambling to slash an average of $131 per student by eliminating teacher aides, consolidating bus routes, and canceling before- and after-school programs.
The reductions in state education aid—coupled with cuts approved in two special sessions last year—mean districts will receive about 5 percent less in 2008-09 than they did in the previous school year.
“It was a disastrous session,” said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
Facing a massive projected deficit and a third consecutive year of declining tax revenues, lawmakers cut $4 billion from the state budget, approving a $66.2 billion fiscal 2009 spending plan that allocates $18.4 billion for K-12 education. That’s $332 million, or 2 percent, less for schools than in the current fiscal year.
Complicating matters is a constitutional requirement, passed in 2002, that requires districts to reduce class sizes. The requirement must be fully phased in by the beginning of the 2008-09 school year. (“Leaner Class Sizes Add Fiscal Stress to Florida Districts,” Feb. 20, 2008.)
In addition, Florida voters in February approved a constitutional amendment that slashed their property taxes, which could further cut revenue to schools.
Florida’s three-year decline in state tax revenues is an “unprecedented event” for the state according to Corina Eckl, the fiscal-program director for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, who identified the Sunshine State as one of the most financially troubled in the country at a recent conference on the health of state budgets. (“State Fiscal Woes Start to Put Squeeze on K-12 Budgets,” May 7, 2008.)
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, largely ignored the budget cuts during his end-of-session remarks May 2. He praised state lawmakers for their “great work” in not raising taxes, while continuing to ensure a “quality education.” He touted the legislature’s continued funding of a merit-award program that gives teachers cash bonuses worth up to 10 percent of their salaries, and a new requirement that middle school students, beginning in the 2009-10 school year, take one semester of physical education.
But the budget situation is having a much more immediate effect at the local level. Mr. Blanton, of the school boards’ association, said officials in many districts have been in budget-cutting workshops trying to determine how to reduce their spending. The impact varies by district because of the complicated school funding formula and individual districts’ enrollment trends. Some districts are losing $77 per student on average, while others are losing as much as $213 per student.
Mr. Blanton said he was unsure whether districts could make the cuts without laying off teachers. Some districts are throwing around more-drastic budget-cutting ideas, such as going to four-day school weeks and closing schools, he said.
“It will make for a rough couple of months,” Mr. Blanton said last week.
In the 258,000-student Broward County School District, superintendent James F. Notter must cut an additional $61 million from his $2.3 billion budget next year, or 2.7 percent, on top of $34 million he had to cut this year. What’s more, he has to slash his capital budget by $250 million, or about 10 percent.
“The heartache there is your capital plan is where you purchase your technology,” Mr. Notter said. “In my 22 years in Florida, I have never seen these kind of budget reductions—on the operating and the capital side. It’s double-crippling.”
Tax-Credit Aid Boosted
Despite the budget crisis, the legislature approved a $30 million expansion of the corporate-tax-credit-scholarship program, originally created in 2001. That program gives companies tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations that in turn grant voucher-style tuition aid to students to attend private schools.
The legislature increased the cumulative statewide cap on the amount of tax credits that companies can claim to $118 million a year, up from $88 million. The bill also increases to a maximum of $3,950 the amount of the scholarships, an increase of $200.
Florida’s tax-credit program is the largest of its kind in the nation—20,076 students used the scholarships this school year to attend 910 secular and religious private schools as of February, according to a legislative analysis. The higher tax-credit cap will result in an additional 6,000 scholarships a year.
“The Florida expansion is by far the biggest movement within the school choice arena this year,” said Lori Drummer, the director of state projects for the Washington-based Alliance for School Choice. She noted that an increasing number of Democrats, especially those who are African-American, supported the bill in Florida.
John F. Kirtley, the president of Tampa-based group Step Up for Students, which helps implement the corporate-tax-credit program, said his group had to turn down 10,000 scholarship applications last fall. Step Up for Students serves as the middleman between the companies who make the donations and the students who receive the scholarships.
And even though the tax credits cost the state money in lost corporate-tax revenue, a legislative analysis predicts that the state could end up saving about $5 million a year because it will no longer have to pay per-pupil expenditures to the students who leave for private schools.
“In the end, the K-12 budget in Florida is $20-something-billion,” said Mr. Kirtley, and the cost of the tax-credit program is “about $30 million. … The argument these parents [of participating students]were making was just so strong.”
The legislature also approved measures that would lessen the effect of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, on school accountability grades. Now, schools are graded as part of the state’s accountability system on the basis of student performance on the FCAT alone. Under the legislation, which Gov. Crist is expected to sign, the FCAT would constitute half the grade, with other factors—such as graduation rate and scores on Advanced Placement tests—making up the rest of schools’ grades.
Also significant in this legislative session was what didn’t pass.
The legislature failed to adopt a constitutional-amendment proposal that would have revamped the board of governors that oversees the Florida higher education system, given the legislature the authority to set college tuition, and made the education commissioner, who is now appointed by the state board of education and supervises the prekindergarten through community college system, an elected position.
The legislature also failed to approve a bill that would have given districts more flexibility in implementing the constitutional requirement to reduce class size. Legislation that would have tightened accountability on charter schools also failed, as did a bill that would have guaranteed teachers the right to challenge the theory of evolution in science classes. (“‘Academic Freedom’ Used as Basis of Bills to Question Evolution,” May 14, 2008.)