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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Education, sadly it's not a priority in Florida

From the Miami Herald


TAMPA -- The state Board of Education asked for recommendations on how to improve Florida’s budget for public schools and colleges — and stakeholders from to the Panhandle to Miami-Dade delivered.

More than two dozen superintendents, college presidents, charter school operators, union leaders and policymakers took part in a nine-hour workshop Tuesday on education funding.

Among the ideas proffered:

• Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recommended the state recognize school districts with efficient business practices. He also suggested some of the dollars generated during Florida’s economic recovery be invested into education.

• Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padron suggested funding for higher education be restored to previous levels and revenue streams for facilities and maintenance projects be broadened.

• David Lawrence of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation said the state should begin evaluating taxpayer-funded Voluntary Prekindergarten programs to ensure quality. “You insist on just that for K-12,” Lawrence said. “I want you to insist on that for VPK.”

• Patricia Levesque of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education said expanding charter schools and voucher programs would create budget efficiencies. She also recommended basing a portion of the school funding formula on student performance and course completion. Florida school districts currently receive funds based on how many students they have.

The state Board of Education will use the suggestions to create budget recommendations for the Legislature.

“It was a very productive discussion, and this is just the beginning,” said state Board of Education Vice Chairman Roberto Martinez, who convened the workshop.

Tuesday marked the first time in recent history the state board has taken an in-depth look at education funding. While state lawmakers are responsible for crafting the budget, the board plays an advisory role.

One message resounded among the speakers: Schools and community colleges cannot survive more cuts.

“We need to see the downward trend [in funding] end soon if we are to do all we can to improve the performance of our students,” Hillsborough Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia said.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers slashed $1.1 billion from the education budget, bringing funding to the lowest level since 2006.

Miami-Dade had to cut hundreds of clerical workers and assistants, and consolidate programs for troubled teenagers. The Broward school district was unable to rehire more than 1,700 teachers and 600 other employees.

Orange County Superintendent Ron Blocker expressed concerns about dwindling dollars for facilities and maintenance.

“When you start talking about buildings in the state of Florida, they don’t stop aging,” Blocker said. “That means there will be roofing issues, maintenance issues, air quality issues and the lawsuits and legal actions that come from it.”

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said state lawmakers need to find new sources of revenue to fund education. He suggested closing some tax loopholes and taxing additional services.

“Our tax structure is just not adequate to meet the needs of this state,” Ford said.

Martinez said state lawmakers were not likely to raise taxes.

“This is about how we prioritize our existing taxpayer dollars,” he said.

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