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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Florida faces $1.2 billion education shortfall

From the

A triple threat of factors will have Florida lawmakers scrambling to close a projected $1.2 billion shortfall in pre-K-12 funding if the state is to keep the same funding level for the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

The gap stems from the end of federal stimulus dollars, a decrease in property tax collection expectations and a jump in the expected enrollment for the 2012-2013 school year.

For the current fiscal year, lawmakers asked school districts to use the $554 million for education jobs from the federal stimulus funds that was appropriated the previous year. Such stimulus funds are no longer available.

A decrease in state economists' projections for property tax revenue means there likely will be $239 million less that local school districts will have to put toward their required local effort -- their share of education funding. Another $224 million will be missing from last year's funding because it came from non-recurring state school trust fund money.

And because of a projected increase of 32,000 students in the school system next year, there will $193 million less to spread around the school districts. Part of that increase, about 12,000 added students, comes from a policy enacted nearly a decade ago of holding back third grade students who fail reading tests. That policy created a bubble of extra students in next year's senior high school class.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, said he would uphold his pledge not to raise taxes or fees again this year, so the $1.2 billion shortfall will be hard to make up. Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, who chairs the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Education Pre-K-12 Appropriations, said the money will have to come from other areas of the budget, such health care, which currently absorbs 43 percent of the overall budget.

"We're going to look at other areas of the budget," Simmons said. "How much do you increase health care expenditures at the expense of other items in the budget, including education?"

News of the shortfall amounted to a baptism of fire for Gerard Robinson, who was appointed as the Department of Education Secretary this summer. He presented the department's legislative budget request to the subcommittee, but senators were dubious of certain spending requests.

They zeroed in on a request for $40 million for more than 600 reading coaches. Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, complained of a 60 percent reading failure rate in 10th grade for the state despite the $1.4 billion spent on reading coaches over the past decade.

"There's something fundamentally wrong with the test or something we're doing with it," Wise said.

"While we have some pockets of challenge, I wouldn't say the money we've spent in Florida has been a failure," Robinson responded.

Robinson's overall budget request did not impress Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who said the committee members "are the people who cut things we don't want to cut."

"I'd really like our new commissioner to hear us all vent so he can see what he's up against. We're not going to be impressed by a few presentations," Detert said.

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