Florida Senate unveils its education spending plan, differing with House on taxes, teacher pay

Tampa Bay Times

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One day after the Florida House released its education budget plan, the Florida Senate followed suit, revealing key differences early in the process.

The two chambers both seek to increase per-student funding, but not by the same amount. The Senate is asking for $110 more, compared to the House’s $100. Neither approaches Gov. Rick Scott’s recommended $200 per student hike.

The Senate, like Scott, calls for leaving school districts’ required local taxing effort unchanged at $4.308 per $1,000 of taxable value. That would allow the schools to benefit from rising property values. The House, by contrast, looks to cut the rate by 19.1 cents per $1,000, suggesting that some new properties be added to the tax roll to increase revenue.

“It’s good that they’re coming closer to the concept,” Senate PreK-12 Appropriations chairwoman Kathleen Passidomo said of the House. “The bottom line is when we looked at the numbers, it really didn’t, particularly in my district, using all the RLE doesn’t really affect the tax issues in our community so I felt very comfortable just keeping all of it in there.”

The Senate proposed changes to the House’s Best and Brightest teacher bonus program, for which the House set aside $253 million. After hearing teacher complaints, the Senate recommended moving $184 million into general operations to give classroom educators raises rather than one-time pay bumps.

“These funds will be in perpetuity,” Passidomo said, adding that the criteria would not change.

Last year, the Legislature expanded the program to include bonuses of up to $800 for teachers rated “effective” and $1,200 for those evaluated as “highly effective.”

The Senate also included $88 million to support “Schools of Hope” grants for traditional district schools that have landed in turnaround mode because of two consecutive D grades or one F. It further would remove the cap on the number of schools eligible for grants of up to $2,000 per student.

Last year, the Legislature approved the program for up to 25 schools.

“All the schools that are consistently low-performing should be eligible for those additional dollars in their turnaround plan, not just 25 schools. That’s why we did it. And a lot of our members have schools in those districts and they asked for it.”

The Senate joined Scott in proposing nearly $18 million more for teacher classroom supplies, and also recommended $40 million to help schools deal with student mental health issues (a Passidomo priority).

Committee members largely praised the process and the recommendations, which advance to the full Appropriations Committee.

Vice chairwoman Dana Young, a Tampa Republican, applauded the idea of getting raises to teachers, noting that many in Hillsborough County were refused raises by their school district. This can’t heal the wound, she said, but at least it can help them get back on track.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said he had some (unmentioned) concerns, but added, “We will work though those as we move along.”