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Extra Students, Less Stimulus Money Hamper Education Budget

By Lynn Hatter

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-889991.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – When lawmakers start to work on the education budget this week, they will have some issues working against them. Number one is money. Florida has $3 billion less of it than was available last year. Another is an unexpected influx of students into the public school system, along with the loss of federal stimulus dollars. The Senate Pre-K - 12 Committee on Education began examining these issues in its Tuesday meeting.

To start the budget process off, the committee decided to look at how other states are coping with revenue shortfalls. The Office of Program Policy and Analysis, or OPPAGA, did the work. OPPAGA's staff director Jane Fletcher presented the findings.

"Maryland had five-day furloughs for all employees including K-12 teachers. Utah had three furlough days resulting in five fewer days, and Wisconsin required state employees to take unpaid leave of eight furlough days. There were a lot of furloughs taking place across the country. There were also hiring freezes, position eliminations, and decreases in teacher pay."

That's just a snapshot, but it's something lawmakers want to put out there as a worst case scenario to show that policies and cuts that they are considering aren't as drastic as they could be. Republican Senator Nancy Detert called OPPAGA's presentation too nice.

"We're currently experiencing hate mail about some bills that will be heard tomorrow on teacher evaluation and change, and what you've said is the same information I get from the National Council of State Legislators, and that's all the changes in teachers' pay, and some of these are more draconian than what we're doing."

Most states are in the same boat and making cuts in areas of education that Florida is trying to preserve. Cutting teacher salaries is a contentious issue that Senator Larcenia Bullard, a Miami Democrat, says should be off the table.

"I know that there are a lot of other areas we need to address, but cutting teacher salaries, they are the ones who provide the services to the children."

Committee Chairman Steven Wise couldn't guarantee those areas would be left alone.

"We in the state of Florida hopefully are mindful of what's going on, and we will try to do the very things you've talked about in our budget."

Adding to the state's budget woes is the number of students in public schools. There has been an unexpected uptick. Last year, the state thought it would have about ten-thousand fewer students. But with the earthquake in Haiti and a deepening economic crunch, more students are coming into the system.

"We're looking at between nine and thirteen-thousand new students, and all of a sudden now we have the Haitian students coming in, and then we also have other additional students coming in that they are predicting, from private schools. They're coming in to the FEFP, which causes the dollar per student to go down or up depending on how much stimulus money we put in the stimulus package in FEFP in order to get the base student allocation up."

The education budget also faces the loss of stimulus money. Last year, committees used federal stimulus dollars to plug some of their budget holes, but this year the money will go away. There's about $1.2 billion left in the education allotment, and lawmakers like Senator Wise say they have to be careful about how and where it's used. Last year, a portion of it went to keeping teachers employed.

"I will tell you that all the stimulus money that we put into the salary line, all those teachers would not be here today if we hadn't put the stimulus money in. So that means essentially that it goes on the scorecard in D.C. on how many jobs did you save, and how many did you create."

The jobs that were saved last year may not be saved again this year. Already, House and Senate leaders have warned against getting too hopeful about funding increases, saying cuts are more likely, and the budget holes in education mean stimulus money won't be enough to ward off further cuts.