State Board sets education priorities in budget request

The proposal calls for a slight increase in funding.

Tampa Bay Times | by Jeffrey S. Solochek | September 23, 2020

As school district leaders statewide fret possible revenue cuts, the Florida Board of Education on Wednesday unveiled a legislative budget proposal that would protect current spending levels.

The $22 billion plan includes a $10 per student increase in the base student allocation, and accounts for enrollment to rise by just over 30,000 children. Overall, it would put an additional $264.8 million into the Florida Education Finance Program, which officials said set a new record.

Board member Ben Gibson noted that the recommendation faces likely changes as lawmakers discuss appropriations. Still, he said, “I appreciate the priorities that are laid out here.”

Those include:

• $40 million to support the Schools of Hope charter school program, a program launched by education commissioner Richard Corcoran while he served as House speaker. The model allows certain charter organizations to receive state approval to open in close proximity to district schools that historically have returned poor test results.

• $500 million to continue paying for teacher raises approved in the spring. Districts are still working on their plans for this year’s allocation.

• $180 million for safe schools funding, which includes armed officers and guardians on campuses.

• $81 million in capital projects money for charter schools, with none for district schools except special projects. Chief of staff Alex Kelly explained that the full funding of charter needs would allow districts to retain their local property tax revenue for their own needs.

Other items proposed for funding include implementing the state’s new language arts and math standards, providing SAT and ACT tests to all high school juniors, and supporting the governor’s civics education initiatives.

It would reduce early education funding by more than $100 million, or about 7 percent, even as some school leaders spoke of the importance of boosting young children’s literacy and math skills to improve their long-term successes. It also would keep funding for classroom technology at $8 million, a fraction of the amount the line item received five years ago.

Board member Michael Olenick questioned why the department would not increase digital instruction funding, given the current focus on distance learning and the concerns that some children — particularly in rural areas — are hindered by a lack of access to equipment and internet service.

Kelly said the Legislature had pared back that appropriation over years, and this round districts could rely on federal CARES Act money to cover specific costs.

“It was our belief the resources are there right now,” he said.

Olenick also asked about how this budget might look if enrollment remains low, as has been the case for many districts so far this year. Kelly said the department expected numbers to rebound as the coronavirus abates and more people feel safe returning to schools.

The budget proposal next goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will release his own request closer to the 2021 legislative session.

Photo: Education commissioner Richard Corcoran and State Board of Education chairman Andy Tuck at the board’s Sept. 23, 2020, meeting at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. [ The Florida Channel ]

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