For the 2018-19 funding year, Florida per-pupil funding increased by:
A. Only 47 cents.
B. More than $100.
C: Both A and B.
The answer? C.
You read that right. Set aside the inflamed rhetoric — the school superintendents who demanded that Gov. Rick Scott yank lawmakers back into special session to find more money for public education, and the snarky video released by the Florida House Majority office that compared local school boards to untrustworthy deadbeats — and there’s a case to be made for either number.
Florida’s education-funding formula started out with good intentions — to provide every public school student with an equal shot at educational success, whether they lived in revenue-starved Panhandle counties or the wealthiest ZIP codes in Palm Beach County. But over the decades, school funding rules have been politicized, balkanized and re-prioritized yearly.
Lawmakers constantly scheme to shift more of the burden onto local taxpayers while taking credit for “massive” increases in school funding, and pile on more restrictions on how money can be spent. Meanwhile, local school districts learn to pack students into programs that draw extra funding.
Districts that try to whittle down bloat and free up more funding for classrooms face significant push-back from unions. The state keeps layering on more mandates. Frustrated voters rally behind feel-good measures like hard caps on class sizes, adding even more rigidity.
Instead of a flexible system to match a rapidly changing world, Florida’s education system has become so hidebound that it can absorb funding increases in the hundreds of millions each year and barely twitch. That’s how we got to the point where classroom funding increased by 47 cents per student. Or $101. Or both.
The $101 represents the overall increase in school funding dollars, including local property taxes, divided by every student in the state. But the money will be doled out to counties in tight little bundles. This year — following the tragic school shooting in Parkland — a huge chunk of the increase was set aside strictly for school security and mental health services.
Peel away all that mandatory spending, and there’s 47 cents left. That’s supposed to stretch enough to hire new teachers, pay them a decent salary and outfit classrooms with state-of-the-art technology.
Florida has a choice. It can keep struggling with a funding formula that’s so illogical that a $485 million increase in education funding boils down to a per-student raise so paltry it can’t even buy them each a Coke. And lawmakers and local school officials can keep venting their frustration through inflammatory press releases and stupid videos.
Or they can work together to strip off the decades of sticky mandates, and rebuild a formula that is fair and flexible — and which puts the billions of dollars that Florida pours into public education where it will do the most good.
This guest editorial was originally published in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, a sister newspaper of the Daily News within Gatehouse Media.