The Senate’s leading education expert unloaded Friday on spending levels for schools contemplated in the Legislature’s compromise $83 billion state budget.
During debate on extending Florida’s corporate tax exemption scholarship program, Sen. Bill Montford complained that base spending per student would decline in the public schools next fiscal year, notwithstanding a modest increase in the school budget.
“In the budget that you’re going to look at Monday,” he said, “the basic student allocation next year will be $27 less than it is this year.”
The budget would grow by $241 million, “but we also have 24,000 more students. You figure that out,” Montford said.
Much of the increase in overall spending would be consumed by pension investments, Montford, a former school principal and superintendent from Tallahassee, continued.
The schools will serve 540,000 students with disabilities. “And we’re spending $50 million less than we did 10 years ago,” Montford said.
“The Safe Schools allocation is $11 million less than it was 10 years ago. The transportation allocation is $45 million less than it was 10 years ago. The instructional material allocation is $36 million less than it was 10 years ago.”
Montford said he would vote for the scholarship programs under debate, because he believes in school choice.
“But the parent who chooses to leave their child in a traditional public school, that child should have the same opportunities as those who choose to go to a nontraditional public school,” he said.
The Senate ultimately approved the scholarships bill, 27-11, and returned it to the House.
The bill would expand both Florida’s corporate tax exemption scholarships and availability of the Gardiner Scholarship program for students with disabilities.
The senators switched out their own version of the Gardiner legislation earlier in the week for the House version, CS/CS/CS/HB 15, which contained the corporate tax exemption scholarship language.
The bill extends Gardiner scholarships to students suffering anaphylaxis; deafness; visual impairments; dual sensory impairments; and “rare diseases which affect patient populations of fewer than 200,000.”
It bumps the amount available to students in the corporate exemption program as they age. Sen. Denise Grimsley said costs tend to rise as students advance from elementary to middle to high school.
“I don’t believe that any of these changes are going to attract more students to the program,” she said in debate earlier in the week.
The program provides low-income students with tuition for private schools or transportation to public schools.
Democrat Daphne Campbell supported the program, saying two-thirds of the beneficiaries are African-American or Hispanic, and more than half live in single-parent homes.
“These students struggled but now they are succeeding,” Campbell said.
“This should not be a partisan issue. The House passed this bill off the floor with unanimous support — every Republican and every Democrat,” she said.
Other Democrats argued the program diverts tax dollars that could go to public schools. Victor Torres said the bill would increase tax breaks by 25 percent each year — doubling it in four years.
“We do not increase finding for public education at this rate,” Torres said.
Sen. Debbie Mayfield sympathized, but argued: “The money should follow the child.”
“I understand that public education needs more money,” Mayfield said. “But I have always believed it is the parent’s choice where the child goes to school.”
“Why would we ask people to languish in situations where they have no choice, when freedom works?” said Sen. Dennis Baxley. “And we know that every one of these schools will do better when everyone’s there because of choice.”
And Kelli Stargel noted that the transportation provision allows students to transfer to better public schools.
“It’s not a fight between public and private,” she said. “It’s dollars that we appropriate from the state of Florida to