CRESTVIEW, Florida — A walk through Northwood Elementary School in this small city shows almost at a glance the privations that tight Florida budget years have imposed on K-12 education.
There is an up-to-date science lab at Northwood waiting for customers, but there is no science specialist competent to take advantage of it. So it remains empty for much of the day. "If funding were available, we'd have a hands-on science teacher," says Principal Jacqueline Craig. "We have the facility, but unless the teachers bring their students over here, there's no one to teach in this classroom."
Science teacher isn't the only position Craig has been unable to fill. "We had a media specialist," she says, "then we had a media assistant. Now we have nothing."
Declining property taxes contributed to a $1.3 billion statewide cut to education last year, Republican Governor Rick Scott's first year in office. Now Scott wants to put money back into education. He made headlines in December when he announced that he would reverse course and make increased education funding a priority in his second year.
"My recommended budget includes $1 billion in new state funding for education," he said during his State of the State speech in January. "On this point, I just cannot budge."
Scott is one of several governors, including Gary Herbert in Utah, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Dannel Malloy in Connecticut, who called for funding increases for education in their State of the State addresses this year, weeks before President Barack Obama chided governors at the White House for not adequately funding education.
"Budgets are about choices," Obama said last week. "So today I'm calling on all of you: Invest more in education."
But the reality of those investments is that they sometimes yield bigger dividends politically than in the classroom. Last year, 11 states, including Florida, cut funding for K-12 education, while seven others kept funding flat, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. Governors who want to replenish the education budget often have a lot of ground to make up , and the schools themselves have a lot of empty positions that need filling.
In Florida, educators and lawmakers applauded Scott's choice to call for an increase in education funding for next year, but schools say that even with the added funds they'll struggle to make ends meet. "Are we popping the champagne corks?" asks Duval County Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals. "No, we still have a huge budget deficit we're trying to figure out."
His school district, which includes Jacksonville, saw a nearly $700 per-pupil decline in funding last year, Pratt-Dannals says. Scott's proposal would put back only $86 per pupil of that lost money. The final House and Senate versions of the education budget, which await final approval by both chambers before heading to Scott, would nudge that amount slightly higher. "In this economy, it's a very good result," insists David Simmons, Republican chair of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Education Pre-K-12 Appropriations.
The Florida Education Finance Program takes into account state revenue, mostly from the state's 6 percent sales tax, and local revenue, mostly from property taxes, to arrive at an average per-pupil sum that all of Florida's 67 districts receive. There are adjustments for types of students — special education students receive more, for example — and for higher costs in some parts of the state, among other factors.
Scott's $1 billion increase for fiscal 2013 includes $220 million to make up for declining property tax revenue and $190 million for an anticipated increase in statewide student enrollment next year. "You start with a billion dollars and off the top almost half of it is filling holes," says Ruth Melton, director of legislative relations at the Florida School Boards Association. "A billion dollars will not feel like a billion dollars in school districts."
Still, legislators say that they did not have to provide additional money to prop up declining property taxes. "We have, I think, been very generous," says Representative Marti Coley, the Republican chair of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.
It is hard to imagine where additional funding could come from at the current budget level. "Almost every policy area took some kind of reduction in order to come up with that billion dollars," says Denise Grimsley, who oversees the entire budget as chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
Generous or not, the restored dollars come with some strings attached.
Some of the billion-dollar add-on for 2013 is specifically targeted for extra reading time in the lowest performing schools. It also contains additional money for the school recognition program, which provides bonuses for the state's highest achieving schools and those that improve by a letter grade in the state's school grading system. Higher funding for the high-achieving schools was one of the top priorities of the Foundation for Florida's Future, an influential education non-profit founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
"If you think about it, it's kind of backwards," says Martin Kiar, the ranking Democrat on the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee. "The money that is earmarked for school recognition funds probably should be going to some of our schools that need it the most."
Many of the schools in Okaloosa County School District, home to Northwood Elementary, are among those that qualify for school recognition funds, but Superintendent Alexis Tibbetts nevertheless questions whether it's the most effective use of state money. She says her schools are most in need of additional support for capital needs.
Declining property values have decimated the property tax base for capital projects. Rodney Nobles, deputy superintendent in Okaloosa County, says the district is working to retrofit schools with wireless networks in advance of a 2015 requirement that all state tests be administered online. But the money may not be there. Legislators gave districts the authority to ask voters to take on an additional half-cent tax to help schools, but Nobles says that would have little chance of succeeding in the heavily Republican county. "Anything dealing with taxes in this county is not going to go down," he says.
The capital concerns are further compounded by Florida's class size requirements , approved by state referendum in 2002 and phased in over the next eight years. They mandate that classes be capped at 18 students from pre-kindergarten through third grade, 22 from fourth to eighth grade and 25 in high school. The state provides support to help schools meet those requirements, and the House and Senate budget increases that funding by 1.9 percent from last year, but administrators say the amount hasn't fully met their needs.
"It's kind of a magic wand approach," Duval County's Pratt-Dannals says of state classroom size funding. "It's all in there, find a way."
Class size costs
He estimates that meeting the requirement last year would have required his district to come up with an additional $12 to $15 million dollars. While his schools meet the requirement on average, the district took a penalty last year for some classes that didn't meet it. The penalty was ultimately $363,000, a far cry from the amount it would have taken to be in compliance.
In Okaloosa County, Nobles says the district has so far remained in compliance, but that it will consider taking the penalty this year. "It's a moral dilemma," he says.
Florida schools will continue to face moral dilemmas in the short term, making tough choices from a set of imperfect options. At Northwood Elementary, principal Craig says that more money won't mean making up all the lost personnel or allow for any substantial increase in resources. Coming changes to the state's standards — as Florida joins more than 40 states adopting a national Common Core set of performance requirements — will present a challenge for teachers in a school that has little to no funding to spare for professional development.
But others see this year's budget as a sign that more promising times are on the horizon. Bill Montford, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Education Pre-K-12 Appropriations and chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, says this year represents the first in a multi-year effort to recover from the recent series of drastic cutbacks.
"This is like a tanker," he says. "No one expects it to turn 180 degrees in one year."