The Phoenix Flyer

The looks-good-on-paper education budget for Florida: Are increases for real?

By: - May 3, 2019 10:31 am

School entrance sign. Photo, CD Davidson-Hiers

The Legislature put together a looks-good-on-paper education budget for Florida schools for 2019-20, and lawmakers are poised to approve it this weekend.

But the proposed increases in school funding – an average $242.60 per pupil in districts across the state – appear confusing to potentially misleading, according to state budget documents released this week.

The public can’t compare the numbers to this year (2018-19), or to the education budget that Gov. Ron DeSantis recommended earlier this year for the 2019-20 school year.

That’s because lawmakers made little-noticed changes to components in the formula used to hand out billions of dollars to schools.

It’s called the Florida Education Finance Program, or FEFP for short, which sends money to schools for everything from textbooks and student transportation to school safety and counseling programs.

This session, lawmakers added two new pots of money into the FEFP that weren’t there last year when the Legislature was putting together the state budget.

The first pot is $284.5 million for a new teacher and principal bonus program. In the past, such bonuses have been funded from a separate category in the education budget – not the FEFP.

That means lawmakers simply shifted one pot of education dollars to another and used it to “increase” per-pupil spending.

The second pot was $45.5-million for academic services such as after-school programs, student and parent counseling and other improvements for struggling schools.

Those two pots helped pump up the size of the FEFP to $21.8-billion, with lawmakers saying that figure represented a $783-million increase from 2018-19.

But the increase wasn’t an apples-to-apples comparison because of the changes they made to the FEFP.

State senators made those changes in a bill that included several major education initiatives.

The Phoenix asked state Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta about the changes in the FEFP and how they impacted the education budget. She responded by email, saying that the $242.60 per-pupil funding for school districts is accurate, as well as the $783-million increase in the FEFP for 2019-20.

As to the bonuses for teachers and principals – which used to be funded in a separate budget category — the program has been revamped as part of a bill headed to Gov. DeSantis’ desk.

If DeSantis approves, the individual awards teachers could get would be for $1,000; $2,500 and up to $4,000, according to the budget documents. That’s less in some cases than Florida’s current state program, which gives teachers the chance to get a bonus as high as $6,000.



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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.