Florida GOP Pols Still Default to “Choice” Rhetoric As Justification for Education Policy

Orlando Sentinel  writer, Aaron Deslatte takes the next step in capturing the real story of the state’ education battles. Deslatte’s poignant column, “Campaign Could Turn On Whether GOP is Starving Schools – or Remaking Them” effectively encapsulates the policy, politics and the rhetoric.

TALLAHASSEE – Has Florida’s political leadership defended public education or de-funded it over the last two years? The answer you get depends on the party you ask this election season.

Since the issue is cropping up in campaigns – and will likely continue to do so through 2014 — let’s re-examine the facts.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed $1.35 billion in education cuts in 2011, dropping per-pupil funding to its lowest level since 2004. That followed a string of years when the state – and the K-12 budget – grew like gangbusters.

This year, after a torrent of criticism and with Scott’s poll ratings in the tank, lawmakers increased funding by $844 million and helped local districts offset a $246.8 million drop in local school property taxes stemming from sinking property values. They also increased the amount corporations could contribute to pay for private-school vouchers in exchange for tax credits, and provided $50 million for charter-school construction.

There are several metrics of school-funding that get the most airplay.

While Florida is one of the lowest-spending states per-pupil and per-capita, these numbers get mixed up a lot. According to the 2010 Census, Florida ranked 41st in per-student funding and dead last in per-capita spending on K-12 education.

Other states that rank near the bottom are mega-states like Texas; conservative states like Arizona; and Southern states like Mississippi and Tennessee. So Florida spends less because it is bigger, more conservative, and located in the South?

Geography, size and ideology all play some role, but so do more complex variables like urban density, demographic complications — like diverse student populations with multiple second-languages — and poverty.

Equating dollars spent with educational achievement is also too simplistic. While the state’s school system isn’t elite, it’s far from the worst in the country – which its funding level might suggest.

Scott and legislative leaders say they’ve done right by public education. Scott even labeled the spending plan that went into effect this month an “education budget,” although it cuts $300 million from state universities.

Looks like per pupil funding will be back as an issue, but this time with an emphasis on how Scott and his GOP legislative allies  spend taxpayer dollars. Aside from Scott’s  and ed commissioner Gerard Robinson’s recent vague suggestions about high-stakes testing, republican legislators are signalling that there won’t be any changes in their agenda for education. In fact they continue to use they same words to defend policy. Lets take a look at two which Deslatte quotes.

First, Will Weatherford:

Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican overseeing House GOP campaigns this year, said the party had a winning message for voters “to create jobs, limit the size of government, and have an education system that includes choice.”

And now, Jason Broduer (R-Sanford):

“Most people just talk about funding,” said Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican facing a primary challenge by a career educator, former Winter Springs Mayor John F. Bush……..”What we want to focus on is policy — giving parents more choice.”

Such repetitive use of “choice” as an ideal – and for two media savvy pols to use it at the end of statements – is further evidence that state GOP legislators continue to hear education policy in Jeb Bush and Patricia Levesque’s echo chamber.  “Choice” has become their default rhetorical tool of, well, choice.  And one which Floridians have become wary when used to justify lawmaking.


About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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