The Senate punted on voting on its big school choice bill Wednesday, as amendments to the measure continue to pour in. But, the chamber did make a significant change to its PreK-12 education budget, moving closer to the House.
Republican Senator Kelli Stargel explained her chamber’s shift toward its counterpart in per-student spending.
“Our offer moves toward the House FEFP by reducing the total funds per FTE increase, which was from $350 FTE to approximately $248 FTE,” Stargel said.
After being praised by public education advocates for its robust budget proposal, the chamber has cut the proposed per-student increase by about $100. Stargel says even with the change, the funding boost is still generous compared to past years.
“However, for context, the funds of the per-FTE that we’ve done in this budget, compared to previous years, it was $101 in 2018-19, it was $100 in 2017-18, and it was $71 in ’16-17,” Stargel said.
Stargel says the Senate’s change in position all boils down to negotiations.
“We’re trying to negotiate with the House, they had a different priority,” Stargel said. “We still have a very good FEFP. We still have a very good per-student increase. As I said, the increase we have is more than the last three years nearly combined.”
The move was made at a hastily-called appropriations conference, shortly after the Senate’s marquee education bill was temporarily postponed. The measure looks to create a new private school voucher program and modify the state’s Best and Brightest bonus structure to help recruit and retain teachers – among other things. But in the waning days of the legislative session, there is a scramble to introduce changes.
Senator Tom Lee filed an amendment that would allow local school boards to raise property taxes, to a level that they could in years past, in order to pay for capital outlay projects related to school safety, like campus hardening. The amendment failed, but just barely – on a 16-20 vote.
“This amendment would allow local school boards to restore their 2 mill money, another half mill, by a supermajority vote, and to use 20 percent of that half mill for the purposes of funding school security and their guardian program,” Lee said.
Lee called it a “common sense” amendment, one that rises above partisan politics.
“There’s this enormous delta that’s taking place in this state, between the capital outlay needs of the public education system, and our ability to fund that in our budget,” Lee said.
But the bill’s sponsor, Senator Manny Diaz, would like to see things stay the way they are concerning the appropriation of funds for such projects.
“I thank President Lee for his attempt to try to fix this issue. At this point, I am going to defer that this issue continue to be dealt with in the budget process,” Diaz said. “I don’t feel comfortable doing it here with this bill.”
Two other failed amendments sought to change the bill in more drastic ways. One, filed by Democratic Senator Gary Farmer, tried to remove the entire provision that would create the new voucher program known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Farmer based his argument on the strength of a landmark Florida Supreme Court case.
“Essentially, this amendment would strip out the opportunity scholarship vouchers contained in 7070, as they are unconstitutional under the precedent of Bush v. Holmes,” Farmer explained.
The other amendment that died was filed by Democratic Senator Janet Cruz. It would have taken the measure’s modifications to the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program, and redirect the money toward teacher salary increases.
The Senate’s omnibus education bill will be up again in the Senate Session Thursday.