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Guest Opinion: Florida legislators ignore education mandate

August 9, 2011
By MARK J. CASTELLANO , Lehigh Acres Citizen

"The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require." -- Florida Constitution.

So states the Constitution of the Great State of Florida. Yet, the 2011 Legislative Session was one of the worst in Florida's history at ignoring this mandate. Governor Scott and legislative leaders claim education is a top priority, yet they blame a $4 billion budget deficit for their inability to adequately fund public education. Lawmakers found at least $156 million to pay for their favorite hometown projects, including: funds to build a boathouse and viewing stands at a Sarasota rowing facility, new sub-panels with Governor Rick Scott's name placed below the "Welcome to Florida" road signs and a study on how to undermine the Florida Supreme Court. Combined, the turkeys and tax cuts could have mitigated roughly a third of the public school cuts.

School district budgets took a major hit with public schools losing $1.35 billion. This will mean that per student funding will drop by $542. The School District of Lee County will lose another $49 million from its budget; this on top of the $90 million we've lost over the previous three years. Each session legislative leaders continue to allow education funding to erode. Examine the trend in education funding established over the last 4 years:

Article Photos

Mark Castellano





2011-12...$6267.97 (This is about $1,038 less than at the start of the 2007-08 school year.)

We continue to hear lip service paid to the importance of education, but the fact is the state is willing to spend close to $20,000 ($19,469 in from FLDOC 2009-2010 budget) a year to incarcerate a youngster, but is only willing to spend $6,267 per student for their education (money which they are willing to pour into our prison system as it is privatized).

Districts already dealing with barebones budgets must find ways to pay for an increase in unfunded mandates from the state, such as an increase in standardized tests and test prep, evaluation and merit pay systems, and increased transportation costs for voucher students. These demands will strip more and more money away from our teachers' ability to educate the students in the classrooms of our public schools. Students will receive increasingly limited classroom resources such as outdated books, notebook paper, pencils, and other supplies for basic learning, including fewer advanced materials to enhance academic performance. Teachers will dig deeper into their own pockets to compensate (teachers already average spending over $400 out of pocket to provide their students with supplies, clothing and food which their families cannot afford).

Teachers, students and parents will find fewer educational opportunities and larger class sizes due to reductions in core curriculum classes as a result of the passing of SB 2120, which was this Legislature's way of undoing the Class Size Reduction amendment passed by voters in 2002 and reaffirmed in 2010.

Funding for most extracurricular activities such as field trips, music and art classes, bus transportation for band, cheerleading activities and sports teams will be reduced, if not totally cut. In order to participate in these classes and activities, students and their families will face what amounts to a "selective tax" in the form of "activity fees".

The budget cuts will further erode school quality by forcing districts to make tough choices and massive cuts in staff, classes and education services, and facilities upkeep, including:

Dwindling district budgets will lead to increased privatization and job loss, a major threat for Education Support Personnel (ESPs). Privatization is, of course, one of the major priorities for this Governor and Legislative leadership.

Governor Scott and Legislative leaders approved a major expansion of charter school vouchers and voucher funding. This is taxpayer money that belongs in the education budget to pay for public schools, not charter, private, or virtual schools. This again has been a priority over the past 13 years Republican dominated government in our State, contrary to being found unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court.

The legislature also approved an expansion and overall flexibility to charter schools, including requirements for districts to provide additional services to charter providers with no additional state funding. This will result in additional funds being diverted from School District budgets to meet these requirements in servicing charter schools.

And lastly, the "selective tax" on teachers and education professionals who are members of the Florida Retirement System will divert millions of dollars from local economies. To put the financial impact of this decision in perspective, in Lee County over $9.8 million will be sucked out of our local economy as a result just from the education employees hit with this tax. This loss will significantly impact local businesses, as well as impair the ability of public employees to make mortgage payments, car payments, and otherwise provide for their families. This combined with the impacts of SB 736, the pitifully misleading "Teacher Quality Bill" passed this year, will also cause many fine education employees to reconsider their career path, potentially driving them out of the profession of educating our children. SB 736 will have little effect on improving the quality of our children's education resulting in increased high stakes standardized testing, making testing companies very happy, while making a career in public education more uncertain.

The bottom line is Florida lawmakers have chosen to ignore the will of its citizens by failing to make "adequate provision" for public education as called for in the Florida Constitution.

Mark J. Castellano is president of the Teachers Association of Lee County.



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