Florida lawmakers set forth education funding priorities
Chairing her first meeting of the Florida Senate PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, asked her panel's members to list their priorities for the coming session, and then she offered some of her own.
Passidomo, who noted she has not served on an education committee previously, said she planned to turn the subcommittee's attention to mental health issues -- something Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said had been near the top of superintendents' agenda for several years.
"A teacher can only do so much and can only teach in a classroom where students are active and engaged," and not struggling with health issues, she said. She said she has invited educators to the next committee meeting to hear their thoughts about how lawmakers can help.
"How do we help our teachers teach our students and not have to be burdened with parenting them at the same time?" Passidomo said.
She also set early education as key for the year. That issue also was key for Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, who said the Legislature must ensure adequate funding for prekindergarten and related programs.
Young said she agreed with Sen. Darryl Rousson, D-St. Petersburg, on the need to continue the focus on "failing schools." Young set the subject in the context of HB 7069, the 2017 legislation that faces legal challenge from several school districts.
Lawmakers should consider the impact of the bill, Young said, and determine how it is working and where it might need attention.
Other issues that arose in the Senate subcommittee included hurricane preparedness, especially relating to school shelters; data security; special education resources; and increased per-student funding.
Both senators and House of Representatives members, who also had a PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee session Wednesday, observed that student numbers are rising in Florida -- including the arrival of children from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands fleeing the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
House subcommittee chairman Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, reminded his members that as the state works out funding for the hurricane evacuees and the other growth, total funding can be affected.
"Our first priority is to fund that first, before we look at any kind of increase ... in per-student funding," Diaz said.
Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, asked questions about the Legislature's decision not to allow local school districts to maintain their tax rates and benefit from rising property values. He suggested that the more than $500 million that was not collected might have helped to support the growth and the influx of island children.
Diaz responded that the existing budget is already in place, and taxes will be collected based on it. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, added that the state will be letting schools conduct a supplemental student count in the fall to help account for hurricane evacuees.