Florida’s students are our most important asset. They are Florida’s future: our future leaders, future workforce and future volunteers. Supporting our students — by providing a high-quality education — is the best and most important investment we can make in our state. And that is what we did this legislative session.
I am concerned about the recent spread of misinformation about education in our state. It’s a disservice to our students and our teachers to misrepresent how far we’ve come as a state and the investments we’ve made in our future.
Just 20 years ago, education in Florida had hit rock bottom. Florida’s high school graduation rate was just 52 percent, and half of the state’s fourth graders could not read at grade level. Since then, we have transformed our education system and improved learning in a very meaningful way.
Today, Florida’s graduation rate is at 88 percent. Florida students gained in all four National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments last year, and they made significant improvements in three of the four tests, while most of the nation remained stagnant. Just last month, U.S. News and World Report ranked Florida third in the nation for the best public high schools.
More: U.S. News & World Report: Three Collier high schools rank in top 75 in Florida.
Recently, the Florida Legislature worked to reduce the burden of tests on our students by eliminating several standardized tests and restricting the time students spent taking standardized tests to just 5 percent or less of the school year. We also provided school districts with greater local control when measuring student performance.
But we still have more work to do. This legislative session, we aimed to build on our students’ success with greater investments in our schools, more opportunities to reward high-performing teachers, fewer barriers for teachers to enter the profession, and improvements to the safety of our schools.
In the budget for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2019-2020, SB 2500, we dedicated $34.7 billion to education, or $800 million more than last year. Education funding makes up nearly one-quarter of the state’s entire budget. For Pre-K through 12 students we will spend $7,672 per student next year, or $242.60 more per student than the previous year. We dedicated $1.2 billion in our Voluntary Pre-K Program and School Readiness Programs. The Legislature also devoted more than $550 million for school district workforce programs, over $2 billion to colleges and over $5 billion to our state universities.
Knowing the important role that teachers play in the education and development of our students, we worked this session to reward the teachers who excel in this critical field. We provided $364 million in flexible spending for teacher pay raises or other district needs. We invested $285 million in the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship program, which provides bonuses to teachers based on their performance in the classroom, and we restructured the awards to focus on recruiting experts in certain fields, retaining proven-effective teachers and recognizing teachers for their hard work.
In response to concerns about the cost and limitations for the teacher certification process, we passed measures requiring the state to establish exam fees, and specify requirements to reduce retake fees. In addition, we eliminated the one-year requirement for individuals teaching under a temporary certificate to demonstrate mastery of general knowledge.
Furthermore, we invested in the safety of our students. With the tragic massacre that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, it is obvious that we needed to do more to create a safe learning environment for our students and teachers. Based on the recommendations of a non-partisan, multi-jurisdictional task force, made up of sheriffs, parents, teachers, mental health experts and others, we passed SB 7030. This legislation provides schools the resources they need to improve safety and security, as well as training to reduce the likelihood of at-risk students developing mental health disorders.
When evaluating education in our state, focus on the facts and ignore the myths. We have dedicated record amounts of funding to our students, rewarded our best performing teachers and improved the safety of our schools. I am proud of our investment in our students. They are Florida’s future.