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Monday, April 18, 2011

The Florida Legislture wants us distracted so they can steal public education

From the Florida Ledger

by Julie Delegal

As an advocate for public education, I generally admire Ron Littlepage’s intrepid support for adequate state funding and local control for our schools. Recently, though, Littlepage swallowed the bait that Senator Stephen Wise cast on behalf of the majority in the legislature—a legislature that has been systematically de-funding public education for years. Littlepage agreed with Wise that we should slash the salary of school board members. Don’t be fooled: Not only is Wise practicing the politics of distraction, he’s promoting bad policy.

Recessions give us opportunities to get our priorities straight. Providing a high quality public education to all Florida’s students is, by law, our legislature’s first priority. But lawmakers have proposed 7% cuts to schools, which, combined with a rise in fixed costs, will leave Duval Schools with a shortfall between $75 and $89 million. This shortfall comes after $150 million in state-forced district cuts over the past four years. Clearly, our students are not a priority for lawmakers.

Wise uses sleight of hand to direct our eyes away from that budget decimation, however, and would have us focus instead on what amounts to less than four hundredths of one percent of the district’s budget—school board members’ salaries. Every dollar counts, but zeroing out board members’ salaries and benefits would work to offset this year’s worse case budget scenario only if we had 1,800 elected school board members – we have seven. (See Math Here)

Low pay or no pay for local school boards would mean that the only persons who will serve are those who don’t need the money – either the wealthy or those who have jobs that permit them to spend gobs of time doing the public’s business. Our underpaid “part-time” legislators have demonstrated the perils of such a plan – many are concurrently employed by other sectors of government dependent on state funding; some work for organizations that have direct or indirect interests in getting state funds. Our state senate president got paid $152,000 for writing a book that no one else has read, and gets $75,000 a year for lecturing at a university which previously paid him $5,000 for the same work. In the education realm, the real danger of low pay or no pay is that school boards will quickly become staffed with people who have financial interests in outsourcing the duties of public education.

That risk skyrockets in a climate where many political and business elites already over-rely on “choice” as an educational alternative for at-risk children. Research tells us, though, that after a decade of experimentation in Florida, choice and competition have failed to offer better alternatives—as measured by student performance—to the students who need them most. We have learned one thing from the choice-and-competition movement, however: truly successful charter schools enjoy additional federal and privately endowed resources that far surpass the resources spent on typical public school students in Jacksonville. For example, the KIPP Impact Middle School in Jacksonville received double the usual federal start-up grant for charters, allowing them to purchase musical instruments for each current and prospective student. “Choice” has taught us that in education, resources matter. And in educating our most disadvantaged students, resources matter more.

The local public school district has won national awards for its careful financial stewardship under the guidance of the Duval County School Board. Outside auditors say Duval’s administrative budget is smaller and more efficient than the comparable districts they’ve reviewed. Don’t let Senator Wise get away with blaming the local board for the dire straits in which we find our schools. If we want to keep elementary art, music, PE, high school athletics, and five-day school weeks, then we’d better keep our guns trained on the real problem: Tallahassee. – Julie Delegal

Call your lawmakers today, and tell them to fund education now. Or, email them through . Julie Delegal’s views are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the education advocacy organizations for which she volunteers.

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