Final budget includes $32 B. in state, local funds for education

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A middle school classroom. (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch)
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TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature plans to spend a total of $31.8 billion in state and local funds on education in 2016-17, according to the final state budget introduced on Tuesday.

That includes $20.2 billion for K-12 public schools distributed through the state’s funding formula, the Florida Education Finance Program. The sum is made up of $11.3 billion in state funds and $8.9 billion in local dollars.

The overall funding represents a $458 million increase, or about 2.33 percent, from the current budget, according to a legislative staff analysis. Per-student funding is $7,178, which is about $71, or 1 percent, higher than this year.

The state is covering most of the school-aid increase. Instead of raising the “required local effort” — the amount of money local property taxpayers are required to contribute toward education — lawmakers “rolled back” the tax rate, resulting in $428 million in property tax relief.

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Gov. Rick Scott and both chambers originally proposed raising the required local effort in order to support significantly higher school aid increases. But the Senate and House ultimately decided on a smaller increase covered mostly by the state, which both chambers have touted as broad-based tax relief while simultaneously depriving Scott of his chief budget priority: corporate tax cuts.

The school aid package includes a new source of funding for schools that serve “federally connected students.” The $12.1 million will go to schools with students whose parent or parents work on military bases or at NASA as well as those who live on Native American land.

There is also an increase of $96 million for educating “exceptional students,” a category that includes students with disabilities and gifted-and-talented students; the boost brings funding to pre-recession levels, according to the staff analysis. The budget also includes an additional $61 million to support an extra hour per day of reading instruction at the state’s lowest-performing 300 elementary schools, a Senate priority.

Although public school aid is the most substantial piece of the education budget, lawmakers agreed on it relatively quickly late last month and then dragged out negotiations over the rest of the line items for another week.

The final deal includes $49 million for the controversial “best and brightest” teacher bonus program, despite opposition in the Senate. That’s $5 million more than the current budget for the program, under which highly rated teachers that score in the 80th percentile or higher on their own SATs or ACTs are eligible for up to $10,000 bonuses. The budget also included $1.2 million for teacher liability insurance, another contentious item.

Lawmakers also grappled over higher education funding until they finalized a budget deal on Monday night.

The State University System will get $4.7 billion, including about $2 billion in tuition and fees, under the plan.

Ultimately, lawmakers agreed to increase a pot of performance funding for state universities to $500 million from $400 million, but they pledged more in new state dollars than what Scott originally proposed. The budget includes $225 million in new state dollars and a $275 million redirect of universities’ base funding. The 12 schools will compete for the money using some common metrics, like retention, graduation and job placement rates, as well as some metrics that are unique to each institution.

Scott had proposed $200 million in state dollars and $300 million from the universities’ base funding, but Senate leaders argued the costs should be split more evenly.

The budget includes $36.9 million in new money for “preeminence” and “emerging preeminence” funding, a special category of performing-based dollars designed to help Florida’s universities improve their national rankings.

The University of Florida and Florida State University got $25 million each under the current budget for their designation as “preeminent” research universities. They earned the status by meeting 11 of 12 goals set by state higher education officials that deal with research productivity and other measures of academic excellence.

It appears the two universities will get additional funding under the new plan, but a spokeswoman for the Senate did not know exactly how much. New money will also be available for schools that qualify for a new “emerging preeminent” status by meeting six of the 12 goals. It’s likely the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida will be eligible for the funding.

The Florida College System will get $2.4 billion, about half of which is tuition and fees, under the budget. That includes a $60 million pot of performance-based funding: $30 million from the state and $30 million redirected from the colleges’ base funding.

The budget includes $408 million for financial aid programs that support public college and university students, such as the merit-based “bright futures” scholarship.

Lawmakers ultimately didn’t increase funding for two state-sponsored financial aid programs that are not based on need or merit and serve students who attend private schools. At one point during negotiations, both houses proposed equalizing the per-student awards under the Florida Resident Access Grant (FRAG) and the Access to Better Learning and Education (ABLE) grant programs, but the final budget didn’t reflect those changes. FRAG awards are $3,000 per student, while ABLE grants are $1,500 per student; previous proposals would have brought them both to $3,030 per student.

The budget includes $693.5 million in Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) funds, including $75 million each for traditional public schools and charter schools. The money supports facilities, maintenance, repairs and renovations.

Colleges will get $176 million for construction projects and $36.2 million for repairs and maintenance. Universities will get $168.6 million for projects and $61.8 million for maintenance.

Individual colleges and universities received funding for specific construction projects. Most notably, lawmakers allocated $20 million to UCF for its proposed downtown Orlando campus, funding that’s contingent upon the school’s ability to raise $20 million in private funds for the campus.

Lawmakers will vote on the budget on Friday, the last scheduled day of the 2016 legislative session.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that students who receive FRAG and ABLE grants are ineligible for state-sponsored need-based or merit-based financial aid. In fact, some FRAG and ABLE grant recipients are also eligible for other state financial aid programs.