Florida Targets Big Cuts In Education

Federal stimulus money is running out and that leaves education in a hole. Florida Gov. Rick Scott says it was wrong for the state to accept the funds in the first place, and he's not going to try to replace them in the budget. That immediately cuts more than $2 billion from schools.

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Many states are also struggling with record budget gaps. Over the next several weeks we'll be following the budget process in Florida. In its first report, NPR's Greg Allen says that like many states, Florida is targeting big cuts in education.

GREG ALLEN: Across the nation, the numbers are staggering. In New York, it's a $10 billion budget deficit. In Texas, it's $27 billion over two years. California is looking at more than a $25 billion budget gap. Compared to that, Florida's $3.5 billion deficit doesn't sound so bad, and the state's new Republican governor, Rick Scott, says much of the blame for that shortfall lies with the federal government.

Two years ago, faced with the worst recession in the last 70 years, the Obama administration provided stimulus money to the states to help them pay for everything from Medicaid to education. Scott says that was a mistake.

Governor RICK SCOTT (Republican, Florida): Some of have been accustomed to the artificially high level of state spending made possible by the money the federal government borrowed from our grandchildren, but no longer.

ALLEN: At a rally with several hundred Tea Party supporters last week, Scott ruled out any tax increases. In fact, he wants to cut taxes further by an additional $4 billion over the next two years. To get there, he's targeted education. He wants to cut more than $2 billion from public schools, colleges and universities, that despite a campaign pledge that would not cut money from education. When asked about his pledge by reporters, he had this to say...

Mr. SCOTT: No, it's not going back on anything I promised. What I said throughout the campaign and what I'm saying today is we're not cutting any money that came - came out of the state general revenue - we're not cutting that. Any money that they relied on - relied federal bailouts, that was different.

ALLEN: Practically speaking, it means a cut of some $700 per student. In the nation's fourth largest school district, Miami-Dade County, School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho says the math is clear.

Mr. ALBERTO CARVALHO (Superintendent, Miami-Dade County Schools): That in fact the state is addressing its deficit on the backs of kids.

ALLEN: Over the last two years, with belt-tightening and federal aid, Miami-Dade County has largely avoided teacher layoffs. At a school board meeting last week, Carvalho said the governor's proposal would cut his operating revenue by 10 percent and make massive teacher layoffs inevitable.

Mr. CARVALHO: Never in the history of our district, not going back to 1885, when the first recorded minutes of this district were identified, have we faced a situation like this.

ALLEN: School board members reminded Carvalho that the governor's proposed cuts are a starting point and likely to be moderated by Florida's legislature.

Even so, it's likely to be a tough few years for Florida teachers. Scott is proposing changes to the state retirement system that for the first time would require teachers and other public employees to contribute five percent annually to their pensions. Further, Scott and leaders within the Republican-led state legislature are pushing several other ideas that teachers oppose: bills expanding charter schools and tying pay increases to student performance.

Which all leaves Miami-Dade Teacher's Union chief Karen Aronowitz with a question.

Ms. KAREN ARONOWITZ (Miami-Dade Teacher's Union): When did teachers become some kind of enemy?

ALLEN: Over the last several years, efforts to improve Florida schools have actually begun to bear fruit. Education Week recently ranked the state schools fifth in the nation. Governor Scott calls his a jobs budget, one that seeks to make Florida a destination for companies that will be attracted by the favorable tax and regulatory climate.

Aronowitz thinks the government is leaving out a key factor that brings workers and businesses to a community: good public schools.

Ms. ARONOWITZ: This is an investment in Florida, and if you do not support public education, excuse me, Mr. Businessman, I ask you - Ms. Businesswoman -why are you coming here?

ALLEN: In Florida and every state across the country, education is the single-largest annual budget expenditure. So as states struggle to make ends meet, it's just about inevitable that students, teachers and their families will feel some impact.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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