Tallahassee, We’ve Had a Problem…

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According to Governor Scott’s office, school districts have “plenty of money.”

We’ve had this problem since the Great Recession and Governor Scott came into office, but it’s one that has been largely ignored by Tallahassee: a lack of adequate funding for public education.

To have Governor Scott, Senate President Negron, and Speaker Corcoran tell their version of this story, however, comes across as boastful, always touting “record levels of funding,” despite the fact that superintendents across the Sunshine State point out, most famously by Superintendent Runcie, that Florida ranks 44th in per-pupil funding.

The Tampa Bay Times and Florida PolitiFact investigated these claims of “record funding” and rated them “half true,” and even that’s a stretch in my book.

And then there’s the most recent “plenty of money” comment from Governor Scott’s office when asked about the money allocated for increased school safety and security, which clearly has most school district officials hand-wringing over yet another underfunded mandate from our state’s capitol. His response to districts’ concerns about not having enough funding to cover these increased costs?

Take it out of your reserves.

Meanwhile, the state sits on a $3.3 BILLION dollar cash pile.

Clearly what’s good enough for the goose is NOT good enough for the gander. Why would Republican leadership, the party that champions itself on fiscal conservatism, encourage the school districts to engage in deficit spending? The state has more than enough money to really invest in public education–or at least for these student safety issues–yet it is unwilling to do so.

Many superintendents across the state–including our own here in Hillsborough County–asked the governor and legislators to not take the $400 million for school safety and security from the per-pupil spending, which is exactly what they did. Rather than pay for these additional needs out of the state reserves and then give us enough flexible funding to cover the extra costs, they instead repurposed the money that had been earmarked already for the education budget and left virtually all districts in a mess.

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And yet this lack of funding for school safety and security is only one small aspect of a much bigger, growing problem presented by the lack of public education investment: teacher salaries.

Florida already lags the nation in teacher salary averages (bottom ten states on every list), but the broader trend for all teacher salaries is even more alarming: from 1996 to 2015, adjusted for inflation, the national average of all teacher salaries actually declined by $1500, whereas the national average of all college graduates across the same two decades increased by $6500(!). This represents an average salary gap of 17.5% between public school teachers and their college-educated peers.

Where does that leave us? Just look to West Virginia, Oklahoma, and now Arizona. It is clear that the “Red for Ed” movement is gaining traction and momentum, and it is not just teachers who are threatening to strike if public education is not properly funded. While it is educators themselves who are leading the charge, it is evident that many parents, students, and community members support these teachers and want an increased investment in education, which would mutually benefit everyone.

The students, first and foremost, would have access to recent curricula, upgraded technology, smaller classes, and additional enrichment opportunities that come with greater funding, all of which would make for a brighter future for them and for us all. For the education professionals themselves, higher salaries would be an economic boon for the entire community in which the educators live because it would mean additional dollars spent on goods and services, thereby helping businesses in the local area. In essence, better funding and a proper investment in public education would foster a virtuous cycle of economic activity that will help students gain the best education possible, keep them here in Florida rather than being siphoned off by brain drain, and have them hired by local companies who are growing and expanding thanks in part to the largest public sector workforce in the state being able to live a little rather than work two or three jobs just to make ends meet.

John Romano’s recent column in the Tampa Bay Times highlights many of these issues, particularly how the lack of funding for the school safety and security measure will leave most school districts scrambling to fund this initiative while simultaneously facing increased costs for retirement contributions, health benefits, etc. He suggests that a special session be called to address the issue, and public education advocates couldn’t agree more.

But the truth is we need to do even more than that. A lot more. If our elected officials want to do something about the growing teacher shortage, they will have to make a sizeable investment to public education as a whole. Since Governor Scott came into office, the purchasing power of the “record funding” we’ve been given has deteriorated anywhere from $1400-$1600 per pupil depending on the inflation calculator and dates used. But the point is the same:

Tallahassee created this problem. Now it’s time to fix it.

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