House, senate differ on school budget

Teachers from around the state brought their call for better public school funding to the old Capitol in 2019.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By Ryan Dailey
News Service of Florida

House and Senate budget leaders rolled out proposed K-12 spending plans this week, with the House looking to boost school funding thanks largely to federal coronavirus relief dollars. 

Both plans fall short of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education budget request, with the House looking at spending about $500 million more than the Senate.

DeSantis’ request, released in January, would bring school funding to a record high of $22.8 billion, an increase of $285 million over the current year. It would also raise per-student funding by $233 to $8,019.

By comparison, the House plan comes in at $22.6 billion and would set per-student spending at $7,850. The Senate is proposing $22.1 billion, which would maintain per-student spending at $7,786.

House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said he is proposing an increase in school funding in what was projected to be a tight budget year by taking into account what he calls “federal largesse.”

“Almost the entirety of this increase is attributable to the appropriation of the second round of federal ESSER funds,” Fine said, referring to federal stimulus money earmarked for schools.

Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, acknowledged that billions of dollars from Washington can be used for specific expenditures in the education system.

“These funds can be used for specific health-related purchases, HVAC replacement devices, devices and equipment for remote learning, additional education staff to address learning losses,” Broxson said.

The proposals released this week are an initial step in the process that will lead to House and Senate leaders negotiating a final spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Both proposals look to address a problem legislators have discussed for months amid the pandemic.

State estimators reported roughly 88,000 students were “missing” from enrollment counts, including students who sought private education or homeschooling without notifying districts or couldn’t be accounted for. That number has been nearly sliced in half as local school districts have worked to locate students. 

The Senate is proposing $350 million in reserves to provide additional money for student enrollment counts that could exceed estimates.

“We know that the enrollment was down some 88,000, that’s been reduced to about 48,000, so what we’ve done in essence is put that in the back of the bill in case those 48,000 students show up in the fall,” Broxson said last Wednesday.

The House is proposing $334 million in reserves to deal with potentially high enrollment counts. The chamber also is considering using $112 million in federal stimulus money that districts would be required to put toward finding students who can’t be accounted for.

House and Senate education budget officials agree on keeping funding for teacher pay raises at $500 million, which would continue a teacher pay raise plan approved during the 2020 session.

“We’re doing our part to make sure that every teacher is recognized for the tremendous effort that they put towards teaching our children. So we continue, even in (a) COVID year, to fund at the level that we funded last year,” Broxson said.

The governor’s proposal called for a $50 million increase, to $550 million, for teacher raises.

Some of Fine’s budget requests prompted pushback from Democratic lawmakers. For example, Fine is recommending that the state repeal the Reading Scholarship Accounts program, which provides $500 vouchers to families of struggling elementary-school readers for tutoring and other assistance.

“With that money related to those scholarship accounts, how will people that are specifically in need of additional reading for their child get additional funding to help them in the area of reading if those scholarships aren’t available,” asked Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington.

Fine pointed to a drop-off in participation in the scholarship program as the reason for eliminating it. 

“The program is not very popular,” Fine said of the scholarships, which were created by the state in 2018. “In the first year, we allocated $10 million, 72 percent of the funding was not used.”

Fine said a similar trend of funds going unused continued in subsequent years. He also told The News Service of Florida that other state reading initiatives could work better, including a measure (HB 3) backed by House Speaker Chris Sprowls that would lead to books being delivered to students’ homes for free.