Florida education budget hailed as 'victory' for avoiding major cuts

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday signed a $22.8 billion K-12 education budget for 2021-22 that avoids any significant cuts to schools while marking a spending increase of nearly $1 billion in a year that was projected to be hampered financially by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Florida’s education spending plan includes boosts for teacher pay, student mental health and school security that were buoyed by federal coronavirus aid that helped state leaders accomplish their top projects. The state schools budget ultimately received bipartisan support in the GOP-led Legislature and even won praise from Florida’s largest teachers union, which is typically a tough critic of DeSantis.

“A lot of people were predicting steep cuts to K-12,” DeSantis said before signing the state budget at an event Wednesday in New Smyrna Beach. “That did not happen.”

“We had the underlying strength in our economy and being open made a big difference,” he added.

Breaking down the budget: Florida is now set to spend $7,795 per-student in 2021-22, a per-student increase of nearly $39 dollars compared to current year spending.

The budget pumps an additional $50 million into the pot of state cash set aside to raise teacher salaries toward a minimum $47,500, bringing total spending for the DeSantis priority to $550 million. Spending for student mental health rose by $20 million to $120 million under the plan signed by DeSantis.

Lawmakers also agreed to spend $6.5 million on the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program to train and arm school guards, replacing funding that was cut last year in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Schools and local law enforcement agencies were left wondering how they could afford training and equipment for campus safety officers after the dollars were vetoed.

Some $464.2 million is set aside in the state budget to offset potential student enrollment swings and expand Florida’s private school voucher programs.

Florida’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, said Wednesday that the 2021-22 budget represents a “victory for public education.” The union, though, did raise some issues with the spending plan for not doing more to help veteran teachers and school support staffers such as librarians.

“Given the circumstances, the final budget is a win for our students and public schools,” Andrew Spar, FEA’s president, said in a statement.

On top of the state cash, Florida is using federal coronavirus dollars to pay $1,000 bonuses for 180,000 teachers and 3,600 principals — a top DeSantis priority. Another $125 million in federal funds is fueling a $200 million program to send books to the homes of hundreds of thousands of students to bolster literacy rates. School districts have more than $9 billion in federal funds available for Covid-19 expenses.

State Democrats hounded DeSantis Wednesday for lauding the state budget without giving credit to President Joe Biden and Congress for passing the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that made many projects possible.

“Unfortunately, as he took his victory lap to hand out the bonuses, and brag about the many programs rescued as a result of the federal help, the governor never once directed thanks to those who made this possible,” the Senate Democratic Caucus said in a statement.

On the ground: While the education budget is being touted by Florida leaders, one outlook suggests many local school districts could see decreases in per-student funding for 2021-22.

The spending plan sends “a lot more money” to virtual schools next year and includes reserves swelling beyond $460 million, which creates the “false impression of a large funding increase,” according to Brian Moore, general counsel for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

In a budget summary to local superintendents, Moore predicted that “many” districts will see more students in 2021-22 and fewer state dollars for them.

“The reality is that most districts will see a reduction in funding with an overall decrease of roughly $200 per student,” Moore wrote.