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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Florida has no plan to fund education

From the Miami Herald

Miami-Dade business leaders will hear from Miami-Central Senior High School Principal Rennina Turner Thursday about how business partnerships, coupled with a strong mentor and tutoring program, are helping turn around a once failing school to one where more students are on track to head to college or trained for work.

City Year’s third annual breakfast will celebrate how far students have come since the mentoring program was launched in 2008. Young leaders who are serving as City Year tutors and mentors for K-12 students are a huge help to teachers, too.

Unfortunately, long-range planning for public education is not something state government does well. Gov. Rick Scott has made no secret that he supports taxpayer-backed vouchers for private schools, though he has pulled back — for now — from forcing the issue because Florida’s Constitution prohibits public money for private schools. Yet most Floridians want their public school system to be top-notch.

Tough times call for sacrifice, to be sure. But there is a breaking point, and it seems ever closer.

State funding for public education has plummeted — and that began before the Great Recession. In fact, the state’s current base student allocation is at the same level it was a decade ago, and maintaining school facilities has been crippled by a bad economy and poor tax revenues. Teachers, who in most districts have not had a raise in several years, have had to dip into their salaries to cover a larger portion of their pension costs. And in Miami-Dade County, teachers also have increased their contribution to their healthcare insurance costs.

All these measures have been reasonable ones to offset layoffs during a financial crisis. School districts that avoided such measures are now facing Broward County’s predicament: having to lay off more than 1,000 teachers.

Despite all these challenges, Florida can begin now to chart a course for investing in public education as the economy starts to turn around. Otherwise, the temptation will be to “settle” for the way things are, expecting teachers and administrators to embrace ever more reforms and cutbacks without rewarding their good work and successes.

To that end, the state Board of Education held a meeting last month to hear from educators, think tanks and leaders of community colleges and K-12 public schools on ways to prod the Legislature to restore funding and reward excellence. A recurring theme during that meeting: Get ready to invest as the economy starts to improve.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho proposed some intriguing ideas:

• Develop a five-year statewide plan that earmarks a specific percentage of economic growth dollars to be reinvested in public schools year to year. Without consistent funding, public schools are losing their best teachers.

• Establish a “pupil poverty index adjustment” in the state’s education funding formula. Miami-Dade used to benefit from a population formula, but the GOP-led Legislature used a power play and dumped it to help growing suburban districts in Central Florida instead.

• Extend general obligation bonds from 20 years to 30 years, to repair aging schools and build new ones when needed.

South Florida legislators need to commit to this strategy. As Florida’s economy grows, so would its investment in education — a win-win for students and the businesses that will one day employ them.

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