Florida Senate Starts Looking At Teacher Pay, School Funding, Recess And Testing

Dec 16, 2016

Credit MGN Online

Florida lawmakers could take up an education agenda that includes testing changes, recess, more money for teachers and a greater focus on higher education—at least, in the Senate.

Senator David Simmons says teachers shouldn’t have to hold down second jobs:

“It breaks my heart when I see teachers having to work in the evening just to make ends meet and we’ve got to improve teacher compensation," he says.

Simmons, an Altamont Springs Republican, is chairing his chamber’s K-12 Education Committee. And he says there could be some room to negotiate with the house on the widely-despised teacher bonus program, Best and Brightest. And with a nod to the opt-out movement, He’s also planning to revive talks about how much testing in public schools, is too much.

“We don’t have to test all year long. We can test two times a year with efficient testing. So we’re going to hear what stakeholders have to say.

Education policy will extend from the classroom to the playground as local school districts try to get ahead of a renewed push for recess. A proposal to give elementary schoolers 100 minutes a week of free play failed last year—but is back again through a new bill. The Orange County School District recently mandated recess for its elementary schoolers and Leon County School Board member Rosanne Wood wants her district to do the same.

“I would like to put this forward as a policy that we could look at in the future and talk about. So that’s what I am going to share," she says.

Recess is optional in Leon County schools as well as other districts across the state. 

Meanwhile funding is a perennial issue, as lawmakers face a tight budget year, and the push for more money in higher education is on. Senate President Joe Negron wants to increase the top tier of Bright Futures Scholarships to cover 100 percent of tuition plus $300 per semester book stipends. He also wants to increase need-based assistance for students and create a fund for university presidents to recruit faculty, while bringing the cost of going to school down through the use of block tuition.

And Negron has a new one: increasing the number of graduate degrees produced in the state to boost the prestige of Florida’s public universities.

“Particularly law, business and medicine. I would expect we’d want to set aside money to make those schools even more prominent than they already are," he says. "If you look around the country, when you have programs that are elite programs, it inures to undergraduate students as well and they get to benefit from that elite emphasis.”

All those priorities could be costly at a time when Florida’s spending is outstripping its revenues. A big part of the budget uncertainty is whether Florida lawmakers will continue to subsidize what’s known as the required local effort, or the local share of public school funding. State Economist Amy Baker says that could be problematic.

 “If you decide to hold it flat…you’re looking at roughly, approximately a $400 million decision above and beyond anything we have in the long range financial outlook. That would worsen the projections we’ve put together.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has expressed interest in doing exactly that, but after Baker’s comments, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala indicated property tax revenues may have to go up if there’s to be a significant increase in the education budget.