Second of two parts.
Sunday's column took a look at the recent Tea Party rally that marked the unveiling of Florida Gov. Rick Scott's first budget.
Scott claimed in a written statement distributed at First Baptist Church of Eustis, where the event was held last week, that his proposed budget "maintains state funding for education — no cuts."
That was a lie. Scott is playing a dastardly word game.
Realize that the state has the responsibility to pay for education — that's in the Florida constitution.
Perhaps that's why state government also keeps local districts in a virtual vise when it comes to funding. The state gives each district a certain amount of money, based on a formula, and then it dictates a specific tax rate to the school boards to raise money locally. Raising more or less can result in the state pulling out its share of the funding.
With that financial frame in mind, let's see how Scott's proposal would work in Lake County.
In the 2007-08 school year, the Lake district spent about $285 million to run the schools, or $6,914.80 per student. Of that, about $163 million came from the Tallahassee, and the state-set local property-tax rate brought in another $122 million.
That's easy enough to understand.
This year, Lake is spending $267 million, or $6,513.89 per student. That's roughly 6 percent less than three years ago.
No more stimulus money
Scott's proposal for next year is where the governor begins blowing smoke to distract the public.
For each of the past two years, the state chose to substitute about $13 million worth of federal stimulus dollars for state bucks in Lake's budget. That means the state got a bit of a break during a tough time, not that the responsibility for educating Florida students shifted to the federal government.
Next fiscal year, the stimulus money is bye-bye. The state continues to be responsible for education.
But not in Scott's world. He seems to think that because a temporary federal giveaway is gone, the state shouldn't have to make up those dollars.
The governor's proposed budget would give Lake a total of $245 million, which is a per-student rate of $5,944.83. About $147 million would come from the state, and the local tax would bring in about $98 million.
The result is a cut of at least 8 percent and more likely 10 percent in a single year — which adds up to a 14 to 16 percent drop in education funding since 2007.
The cut would be 8 percent only if another of Scott's proposals is implemented — that of forcing employees to contribute 5 percent to defray the cost of their retirement plan. Methinks that union contracts may have something to say about that. So, it seems more likely that the reduction would be more like 10 percent in single year.
No. 39 in per-pupil spending
Never mind that enrollment hasn't dropped — in fact, it's risen by about 100 kids. Never mind that the price of diesel for buses to get them to school rose from an average of $2.41 a gallon in January 2007 to $3.43 a gallon last month, according to the federal Department of Energy Information. Never mind that voter-approved caps on the number of kids per classroom took effect in the fall.
Granted — the Lake school district has not managed its money in the way that many fiscal conservatives would. It's troubling.
For example, the district still pays 100 percent of the cost of health insurance for its full-time employees, but that's likely because the pay is so lame. (And again, union contracts extending beyond next year govern those sorts of expenditures.) My personal pique is any kind of conference and travel. It all should have stopped long ago. School Board members must step up and clamp down.
But with an 8- to 10-percent reduction in one year, there would be "no way to protect the classroom," said Carol MacLeod, the district's chief financial officer.
"These cuts are going to hurt
," she said.
Meanwhile, Scott is proposing to slash Florida's 5.5-percent corporate tax rate — already one of the lowest in the nation — to 3 percent and to eliminate it by 2018. How nice that business, which directly benefits from the workforce produced, would have zero responsibility.
Consider that Florida was 39th in per-pupil spending in 2010, according to the U.S. Census, and when the Census considered how much of every $1,000 of personal income goes to education, Florida dropped to No. 50, just above Washington, D.C.
Majority of employees work with kids
Does it make you proud to know kids are not this state's priority?
North Lake Tea Party co-founder Patricia Sullivan, who made an unsuccessful run for Congress last year, said she examined the education portion of Scott's budget and didn't seen anything objectionable.
"I have to look at the things that I want and the things that I have money for," Sullivan said. "It's unfortunate that over 50 percent of school employees are not even in the classrooms."
Sullivan's comments are as inaccurate as they are shallow. Platitudes that spark clapping and hooting at a Tea Party rally disintegrate when thinking people sit down to wrangle out budgets.
Sullivan's implication that employees other than teachers are somehow unneeded is fantasy. School districts don't operate without bus drivers to get kids there and cafeteria workers to cook lunch and janitors to clean and repair the buildings.
In addition, the "facts" that back up Sullivan's opinion are wrong. The Lake district employs 5,397 people. Of those, 3,459, or nearly two-thirds, are teachers or teacher aides who work directly with children in classrooms.
Three times, Sullivan ducked the question about the morality of dragging down education funding to make big business more wealthy.
Vision and courage required
She finally said that she can't live in a fantasy world, and neither can children. Schools just have to make do with what they're getting, and businesses provide jobs, so they should get the money.
"That's reality," she said. "We have to deal with reality."
No, Patricia, that's Tea Party Reality, a zone where people choose to set spending priorities based on tired clichés like 'that's reality.'
In Tea Party World, everything — except the Medicare and Social Security programs so precious to its backers — gets hacked to shreds by a governor swinging a large machete while a crowd of well-meaning folks at First Baptist cheer him on. If that's the plan, why bother with a governor at all? Computers can calculate percentage cuts faster. And they don't hand out $300 million in giveaways to supposedly attract business while they're at it.
Perhaps the Tea Party movement should take into account that the entire Lake school district could be funded next year with that single slice of Scott's economic-development program mentioned above. And he could still keep the reduction in corporate tax.
Legislators, who ultimately are responsible for the budget, must have more vision — and more courage. This state's education system is plenty poor without subjecting it to capricious cuts.
The governor had enough fresh, thoughtful ideas in his proposed budget that he didn't have to go all Pinocchio on Floridians when announcing it. But it's no wonder he lied about education. Distributing corporate welfare on the backs of students is despicable.
'School choice' platitudes
The Tea Party movement has a responsibility, too. It needs to stop applauding long enough to come up with a practical solution. It's easy to sit outside the system and yell 'less taxes!' It's a lot harder to step up and provide specifics. That requires thought and study.
If the Tea Party wants to abolish public schools — and it sure seems as if that's the unspoken goal — then it should quit mouthing platitudes about "school choice" and flatly say so. Then it should offer a proposal of how to go about abolishing public education. Slow starvation is not the answer. That produces only a workforce of intellectual skeletons.
However, Tea Party members, who advocate adhering to the Constitution, probably should prepare themselves for the shock that most Americans want decent public education, regardless of what the writers of the document may have had in mind. They'd also best remember that neither Medicare nor Social Security were mentioned by the founding fathers.
For now, feeding education with tax dollars still is a public responsibility. Public schools should not have to face famine with the election of every new crop of politicians. The heat is on your local legislators.