Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday that on Thursday he will propose
a $1.2 billion increase for Florida's public schools, a boost that would hike
per-pupil spending by $400.
Scott's proposal will be unveiled as part of his 2013-14 budget recommendation to the Legislature. More policy details also will be revealed then, showing how Scott found the cash for schools in a year marking the first where he's not staring at a budget shortfall.
"My top two priorities are jobs and education, and they are directly connected," Scott said at the Associated Press' annual planning meeting in the Florida Capitol.
Education under Scott has roller-coastered the past two years. Within months of his swearing in, Scott signed a budget that slashed public school spending by $1.3 billion. Last year, he reversed course and successfully pushed for a $1 billion increase.
Scott said he is "doubling down" on the schools investment with this latest proposal. The Republican governor, who is running for re-election next year, said his budget also will include $480 million that will allow for $2,500 pay raises for Florida teachers, covering a promise he made last week.
The budget also will finance the 26,746 additional students who will fill Florida's classrooms next year at a cost of $172.9 million.
Scott's proposal would outstrip the $70-per-student increase sought by the state's Board of Education. Scott said his per-pupil funding level will reach $6,800 -- edging closer to the state's record $7,126, reached during the pre-recession 2006-07 school year.
Since then, pre-kindergarten through high school public school enrollment has gone up by about 63,000 students, to nearly 2.7 million statewide. The Palm Beach County School District's enrollment has gone up by nearly 8,400 students since 2007.
"Investing in our teachers and our education system is our key to economic growth," Scott said.
State economists say the improving economy has yielded an $828.5 million budget surplus -- Florida's first extra cash in six years.
But education and health and human services spending account for most of the state budget. And to increase one area, the other usually has to absorb cuts. Still, Scott would not elaborate Wednesday on his budget-balancing.
"We'll see tomorrow how he does that," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, also speaking at the AP session, said he welcomed a boost for schools. But Smith mocked Scott for having an "epiphany" on education driven largely by concern about his re-election campaign.
Scott has been plagued by low-approval ratings in most polls. A potential Democratic opponent is former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, a favorite of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.
Smith said Scott's action showed he was effectively saying, "I was wrong to starve education and starve government so much."
Scott, however, wouldn't acknowledge that cutting $1.3 billion from schools two years ago was a misstep. Instead, he said "tough choices" were made that helped shrink government, cut taxes and fan the embers of the state economy and create 200,000 private sector jobs since he took office in 2011.
A Democrat who already announced her candidacy to run against Scott, former Weston state Sen. Nan Rich, said, "There are few decisions Gov. Scott has made that are in the best interests of Floridians."
Scott's pitch for a sizable increase for public schools didn't draw resounding support from his fellow Republican leaders in the Legislature.
"We do have more revenue but our budget surplus is breathing room," Weatherford said. "It's not enough to put your feet up on the couch."
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, also was cautious.
"We've come out of the locust years," Gaetz said, relying on a biblical reference to frame the budget balancing facing lawmakers. "But I'm not sure we're in the land of milk and honey."
Palm Beach County School board chairman Chuck Shaw, when asked about the governor's proposal, quickly responded, "Send us the money!"
"I'm happy to see the state is addressing restoring some of the funds we lost over the years," Shaw said.
The district's lobbyist, Vern Pickup-Crawford, said the governor's budget proposal reflects what the school district has been saying all along about the best way to bring economic development and good jobs to Florida is to have high quality education.
"In order to have good education you need to pay for it," he said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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