Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos likes Florida schools. A lot. She has visited the state twice as frequently as she has any other, recently describing its charter schools as “on the leading edge of providing parents a wide range of choices for their kids.” But through a potent mix of policy and public shaming, state leaders, including Governor Rick Scott, may actually be starving the state’s public education system to death.
I was a school administrator at Hillsborough County until 2013, and am intimately familiar with the district’s myriad financial woes.
The leader of Florida’s State House of Representatives, Richard Corcoran, recently painted the eighth largest school district in the country, Tampa’s Hillsborough County Schools, as the poster child for runaway public school spending. He attributed the district’s budget struggles to “bloat, inefficiency and gross overspending.” “Their problem,” he noted, “is their mismanagement.”
I was a school administrator at Hillsborough County until 2013, and am intimately familiar with the district’s myriad financial woes, including increased costs for healthcare, buildings in disrepair, and a failed partnership with the Gates Foundation that withheld $20 million in the final year of a hefty grant. Hillsborough County Schools are also under pressure to install cost-cutting recommendations proposed by a consulting firm, which audited the district’s operations and finances.
As a result, the Hillsborough County Schools—like many urban school districts—is experiencing severe austerity.
Few would argue that trimming fat from a bloated organization is a bad thing, and according to critics the district is burdened with inflated upper management salaries, has committed to costly grant initiatives it can’t afford to sustain, and is slow to innovate, thus losing enrollment to charter schools.
But long-term policy decisions, most notably lagging support at the state level, are at the root of the district’s distress. In fact, adjusted for inflation, the Florida Legislature and Governor Rick Scott have actually reduced education funding by nearly 8 percent over the last five years.
The Florida Legislature and Governor Rick Scott have actually reduced education funding by nearly 8 percent over the last five years.
If you were to ask Governor Scott about education spending in the state, he would likely cite a half billion dollar increase in K-12 spending in 2016. But he would likely not mention the one billion dollars he cut in his first years in office. It’s also unlikely he’d mention that when he and the Florida legislature passed this year’s budget, they simultaneously limited how much municipalities could raise in property taxes to support local schools. This one-two punch now prevents districts like Hillsborough from adjusting to current needs, and places control over school funding in Tallahassee.
The net result is that districts are not overspending but rather struggling to do more with less. This is supported by the national data. On the whole Florida schools spend far less on administrative costs than other states, and are virtually on par in every other category. Florida ranks 42nd in total education spending per pupil and 46th in school staff salaries per pupil.
Lastly, according to the National Education Association, Florida ranks 51st in public school revenue for every $1000 of personal income generated in-state. That’s right, 51st out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Put another way, no other state (including Washington D.C.) collects less from its citizens to support public schools than does Florida. Let that sink in for a minute.
Florida ranks 51st in public school revenue for every $1000 of personal income generated in-state.
And if it is just efficiency and better management the Florida legislature is after, one has to wonder why they would enact policies that divert funds from traditional school districts to charter schools. This is not to say that charters are either good or bad—that is a debate for another time. But to pass legislation diverting funds to charters while in the same breath admonishing districts for waste and mismanagement is puzzling. Charter schools, especially charter operators most prevalent in Florida, have a well documented history of mismanagement, failure, and all-out corruption. In just one recent example of a charter operator gone bad, the operator collected over $57 million dollars in public funds with more than $1 million going to personally enrich its operator.
This might explain why not a single school superintendent supported HB 7069, which requires school districts to share public money levied from property taxes with private charters operating in their county. Broward County, whose county seat is Ft. Lauderdale, has even gone so far as to sue the State Legislature over the passage of the bill, with other districts recently joining suit. The state legislature, in turn, posted a curious video promoting school choice.
For district leaders, most of whom are non-elected officials, mounting a defense against powerful political foes is a no-win proposition. If they spend more on innovation they are portrayed as wasteful. If they enact cost-cutting measures they may be undermining current and future services. If they construct quality buildings they are accused of erecting “Taj Mahals.” And if shoddy buildings fall into disrepair it is “mismanagement.” No matter how much money is in the government coffers, schools, teachers, and custodians alike are expected to proceed as if the economy were in freefall.
Looking over the horizon, however, one can assume that without appropriate state revenue, and with dwindling federal support, districts across the country will need to look to local dollars to buoy lagging funding. And where that is not available, or now illegal, public schools will decline further. Urban districts serving the majority of poorer students will suffer the most.
Urban districts serving the majority of poorer students will suffer the most.
In this worst-case scenario, Florida is a canary in the coal mine of the United States public education system. With Betsy DeVos such a fan, one has to wonder if Florida is a sign of things to come to a state near you.
Walter Fernando Balser is the founding director of the Open Partnership Education Network (OPEN) at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and an instructor at the Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership. A proud urban educator, he writes on education and contributes to the Huffington Post.