Preparing For the Worst, Hoping for the Best

TEACHER UNION FIGHTING JUST TO AVOID FUTURE SCHOOL CUTS


 

By KATHLEEN HAUGHNEY
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

 

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Nov. 10, 2009........

 

The union representing the state's teachers is preparing for the worst for next year's budget, while hoping for the best.

“I think we're looking at a disaster,” said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford. “The stimulus package last year saved us, but we really need to look at funding in general. I think we're looking at very serious times ahead.”

Lawmakers were able to increase per student funding from $6,844 in 2008-2009 to $6,872 for the current year because of stimulus money. But there won't be as much of that for next year's spending plan and the state is already projecting a $2.6 billion shortfall.

 

Last year, prior to the infusion of stimulus money, the state was projecting more than 20,000 teacher layoffs. Though some layoffs still occurred, the bulk were avoided because of the help from Washington.

 

Now, it's back to looking at a potential 20,000 or more layoffs statewide, Ford said, unless the state comes up with a solution. The layoffs will put even more stresses on some of the state's schools that are already struggling to improve, Ford said.

 

“Kids need stability more than ever, and school is the one place that could be stable,” he said.

The FEA is also expecting another fight on class size, which affects how much money school districts receive. The class size reduction provision in the constitution is supposed to be fully implemented next fall, and for the past few sessions, lawmakers have been trying to stop that.

 

The law would allow no more than 18 students per class in grades Pre-K through third, no more than 22 in grades four through eight, and no more than 25 in grades nine through 12, by the start of the school year in 2010.

 

School districts have worried about how to implement the hard caps when new students could move into a district mid-year, but at the same time, the class size reduction mandate also means guaranteed funding for public schools.

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, sponsored the bill last year to tweak class size provisions and said he intends to refile the legislation for next year's session.


Weatherford said he favors class size reductions in general, but added that the hard caps leave no flexibility for administrators, who he said will have to spend a good chunk of time worrying about whether classes are at the correct size instead of focusing on other things. The FEA is worried that schools will see even more reduced funding the class size constitutional mandate isn’t kept.

 

“The reality is if class size were going to be taken out of the constitution right now, it wouldn't fill the education budget hole,” Ford said. “It's a drop in the bucket, when you look at the overall deficit within the school budget. And class size is really the only commitment that the state has made to public schools in terms of guaranteed funding of a specific program.”

 

Ford said the FEA, the governor’s office and lawmakers have been meeting throughout the summer and fall to discuss possible budget proposals to spare schools, but have not reached any solutions.

 

Last year, the FEA proposed raising the sales tax by a penny for education, but the idea failed to gain any traction. Ford said the FEA still supports the idea, but acknowledged it would be difficult to get that proposal through the Legislature, particularly as lawmakers head into an election year.

 

And though the economy is starting to show small signs of improvement, it's still a long way off from total recovery.

 

“It's anticipated even if the economy were to get perfect today we are still facing a funding cliff here,” Ford said.


11/10/09


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