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Florida Education Board Approves Record Funding Request

Florida Department of Education

The State Board of Education decided Wednesday to once again ask lawmakers for record per-student funding for public schools — with the lion's share of the increase coming from local taxpayers.

Board members unanimously approved a budget request of nearly $20.2 billion for the main funding formula for public elementary and secondary schools in the fiscal year that begins next July 1. That would set a new benchmark for total funding, up from this year's $19.7 billion, as well as marking the highest per-student amount in state history.

"Last year, you'll remember that Gov. Scott and the Legislature provided historic levels of funding for education, and we are hopeful that for the (coming) year, the governor and the Legislature will make education a top priority once again by providing historic funding levels," Education Commissioner Pam Stewart told the board.

In a June special legislative session, lawmakers rejected Gov. Rick Scott's call to increase per-student funding in the current budget year to more than the high-water mark of $7,126, which came in the 2007-08 school year. This year's decision, made as the House and Senate tried to plug a hole in the health-care budget, deprived Scott of a victory on a campaign promise he had made during his successful re-election bid in 2014.

The proposal approved Wednesday by the board would boost spending to $7,209.39 per student, an increase of $104.33, or 1.47 percent, over the current year.

However, only $50 million of the $475.9 million hike in funding would come from the state. The other $425.9 million would come from local property taxes that make up a key part of the formula for education spending. That approach has drawn criticism from Democrats and some Republicans, who equate it to a tax increase.

Defenders of the formula point out that the local tax dollars go up because the value of property is rising, not because the actual tax rate is being increased.

The board's proposal still has several stages to go through before a final number on per-student spending is set. Scott is expected to announce his budget proposal in December, and lawmakers will begin their regular session in January. A final state spending plan will likely be approved in March.

At least one board member held out the possibility that the increase could grow by the time lawmakers are done.

"I hope that percentage increases," said board member Michael Olenick.

Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who chairs the Senate's education budget subcommittee, said it is too early to tell whether it's likely that the Legislature will approve a record amount.

"I hope it is (likely)," he said.

But Gaetz, a former district superintendent, also said he believes "Tallahassee politicians and school board members need to be careful about patting themselves on the back" for funding increases that largely come from local taxpayers.

At their Wednesday meeting, the state board also approved a list of legislative priorities for the 2016 session. Included were measures that would make it easier for high-performing charter schools to open new campuses, allow students in low-performing schools to receive enrollment preferences at charter schools and overhaul the Department of Education's process for investigating teachers accused of misconduct.

Among other things, the latter bill would put more teachers on the board that investigates alleged wrongdoing and would allow the education agency to get access to the findings of child-protective investigations by the Department of Children and Families.