Orlando Sentinel: Lawmakers’ creative education math, and Wise on the media whipsaw

March 24, 2011- The Florida Legislature’s 2011-2012 budget is taking shape and the push to make cuts largely on the backs of the poor, sick and public employees is going to take some rhetorical contorting.

Let’s look at schools. Florida budget-writers appear poised to impose about $1 billion in cuts to classrooms, dropping the average funding level of $6,811 per-pupil to about $6,388 under the Senate’s version. The Senate PreK-12 Education Appropriations Committee released its third version of the classrooms budget Thursday and it slightly lessens the cut to schools.

Much of the cut is being absorbed by teachers, who would have to start contributing about 3 percent of their wages to their retirements. That will amount to about $678.6 million less in state spending on public pension benefits for teachers.

That will mean less pay in teachers’ paychecks. But it doesn’t directly impact classrooms (unless your teacher decides to change jobs). The number is slightly better than the $739 million Florida Retirement System cut the committee put out on Monday.

But Senate Education Budget Chairman David Simmons, R-Maitland, said again Thursday morning the budget “essentially provides for level funding.” That’s the same claim he made last week before Senate budget staff took nearly three-quarters of $1 billion out of the funding formula.

He later added the revision was essentially level funding ”except for the issue of’ the Florida Retirement System changes.”

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said Monday when the earlier numbers were released that no one wanted to see a bumper-sticker that said they’d “balanced the budget on the backs of teachers.”

Florida Democrats pounced on the remark, and Detert said Thursday that “I probably made a bad comment” earlier. She added that the numbers make more sense now and she supported the cut.

A couple of other Republicans on the panel — Sens. Paula Dockery of Lakeland and Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach — expressed some reservations with the size of the number, as well as the fact that the budget was assuming the pension reforms even before the Legislature has passed the policy change.

Simmons said the impact of the cuts on classrooms was a wash because districts would no longer have to pay into the retirement system — and thus could spend the money on things like books, buses and the like.

“It does not affect the districts in their daily activities. Does it affect the income of a teacher? Yes, … but it is still the teacher’s money,” Simmons said.


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