As the Florida legislature continues to shift the burden of funding schools to local property owners, the colossal cost of the unfunded class size amendment looms. Joe Callahan with The Gainesville Sun wrote a thoughtful story today on the dense subject of education funding.
A decade ago, voters overwhelming passed an amendment to the Florida Constitution that says legislators must make education a top priority.
It was 1998, and more than 70 percent of Florida voters demanded that new wording be added to Article IX, Section 1, entitled Public Education for Children.
“It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders,” the Constitution now reads.
Jon Mills, a former speaker of the Florida House and longtime Gainesville resident, penned those words, considered at the time the most definitive education requirement in any state constitution.
Mills, now director of the University of Florida’s Center for Governmental Responsibility, said the state has not lived up to that standard.
Instead, lawmakers have shifted the responsibility of paying for K-20 education – kindergarten through college – to property owners.
Of all the state’s general revenues – which include sales tax and fees – education’s share declined from 61.5 percent in 1984-85 to 50.5 percent in 2005-06.
Looking at just the education budget: In 1985, state sales taxes and fees paid 65 percent of the cost of public education. Now, sales taxes and fees pay only 47 percent. The rest comes from property taxes.
“Local taxpayers are now shouldering the responsibility that should be shouldered by the state,” Mills said.
State revenues and property taxes both are subject to fluctuation, depending on the economic climate. But even though there’s no perfect ratio, there is a strong sense – outside Tallahassee, at least – that the state just isn’t doing its share.
It’s a debate that heated up again after Florida nearly lost $2.2 billion in federal education stimulus aid because the state hadn’t been adequately funding schools.
What’s worse, no matter how the funding burden is divided between the state and property owners, Florida continues to rank near the bottom of all states in per-pupil funding.
The picture grew darkest in the past (2008-09) school year, when education funding was severely cut, causing school districts around the state to slice programs, reduce staff and trim expenses.
The issue prompts educators to question the state’s commitment to education and lawmakers to defend their actions.
Speaker of the House Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, a seven-year veteran of state politics, agrees with the 1998 amendment, though he said educators forget about the state’s other costly obligations.
“We have a 1,000-pound elephant in the room called health care,” Cretul said, noting that those costs have skyrocketed, especially since 1998.
“Education is our core mission,” he said. “But we have to make sure there’s enough funding for the other services.”
Just a few years ago, Florida was flourishing financially. Tourists and new residents flooded into the state and property values soared.
By the 2006-07 budget year, the state collected a record $73 billion in sales taxes, ad valorem tax and other fees.
But then came a recession-led storm that kept away tourists, thus reducing sales tax revenue, and slowed the once-steady stream of incoming residents who supplied new property tax revenue.
When the housing market crashed, which sent property values and revenues plummeting, state funding was like a house of cards in a wind tunnel.
In just three years, the state budget declined by $11 billion, lawmakers say. Thanks to federal bailout money, the state’s budget for 2009-10 will top $66 billion.
The 2009-10 total revenue for education is expected to remain constant, but only because federal stimulus dollars are essentially providing a two-year grace period.
In 2006, if the state had funded education at 1985’s 61.5 percent level – and if the local efforts remained the same – there would have been $3 billion more in the state education budget, a 22 percent increase.
And that doesn’t include about $1 billion in Lottery funds.
Even that would have left Florida about $500 below the national average in per-pupil funding.
The Heritage Foundation, a national think tank, found that after adjusting for inflation Florida was the second worst at increasing its K-12 per-pupil funding between 1994 and 2004.
Florida increased its per-pupil spending by only 8.5 percent to $7,683. Alaska was the only state with less of an increase, 5.9 percent. But it was already spending more than $11,000 per pupil on its children.
The story continues here and does a fantastic job of explaining Florida’s funding mess. Truly, what Florida needs is extensive tax reform to modernize our antiquated system of taxation. Visit sites like Florida’s Tax Watch and the Center for Florida Fiscal and Tax Reform to learn more.