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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Florida cannot keep shortchanging schools and expect a prosperous future

from the Bradenton Herald's editorial board

While Gov. Rick Scott became a convert to education this year, his proposal to spend an additional $1 billion on public schools falls short of a meaningful boost.

Some $220 million of that amount offsets the decline in property values and resultant taxes. And an expected enrollment increase of 30,000 students will cost another $190 million.

Under the governor’s $66.4 billion state budget, per-pupil funding only increases $140 -- still almost $500 less per student than in the 2006-2007 school year. Plus, last year the Legislature slashed $1.35 billion from education -- at 8 percent, less than the 10 percent cut proposed by Scott.

The national average in per-pupil spending stood at around $10,500 in 2009-2010, according to the latest Census Bureau report. That year, Florida spent $6,850 per student. For 2011-2012, the state will expend $6,270.

While the governor’s newfound appreciation for public schools as vital to Florida’s economic future is a gratifying switch, his proposal for next year still leaves the state among those with the lowest per-student spending.

Florida appears headed toward even more challenging times in meeting new demands on students and educators. The state Board of Education stands ready to toughen up the FCAT by requiring higher scores for third- through 10th-graders. As a result, more high school students are expected to fail graduation requirements.

The state’s high school graduation rate reached a record high of 80.1 percent in the 2010-2011 figures released last week, though Manatee County’s rate dropped five percentage points to 74.6 percent. Once Florida implements a new federal formula that does not allow adult education transfers to be a positive factor, the Sunshine State’s graduation rate is expected to fall dramatically.

Under this new formula, to be adopted next year as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, Florida’s graduation rate would have been 69.5 percent for 2010-2011.

With more rigorous FCATs and a stricter graduation rate formula along with new teacher accountability standards, the state’s school system faces stiff challenges. Scott plans to travel the state and meet with teachers to hear their ideas on improvements to schools and student achievement, another positive sign from the governor.

Florida’s economic and employment challenges -- an estimated $2 billion revenue shortfall in next year’s budget -- will make for another difficult year for lawmakers. Education, though, should be a priority, as Scott vows. The state cannot keep shortchanging schools and expect a prosperous future. The Legislature now must meet that challenge once the 2012 session convenes next month.

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