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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman April 5, 2010

Alex Sink says controversial education bill is unfunded mandate for local schools

Count Alex Sink among those fighting a controversial series of education reforms being pushed by state Republican leaders.

SB 6 would link teacher pay increases to student performance, eliminate long-term job security for new teachers and require end-of-course exams for subjects not covered by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test starting in the 2013-2014 school year. Most Democrats and some moderate Republicans in the Legislature oppose the changes; so does the teachers union.

Sink, the state's chief financial officer and a Democrat running for governor, added her opposition in a March 31, 2010, statement.

"These proposals are bad for our children and our state," Sink said. "As a mother whose two children went to Florida public schools, I feel strongly that our local school districts should be the ones making these kinds of decisions for our students and teachers -- not politicians in Tallahassee. I also have a serious problem with placing even more unfunded mandates on our local school districts, as they are already facing significant budget concerns."

The education bill proposed by Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, has been one of the more hotly debated issues of the 2010 legislative session. It passed the Senate 21-17 on March 24, 2010, and awaits action in the House.

As part of the bill, teachers hired after July 2010 would work under one-year contracts instead of the current multi-year contracts awarded to teachers after three years of service, which is informally known as tenure. School districts would have to create base salaries and set aside a pool of money for performance bonuses that would be based on test scores and other guidelines developed by 2014. The legislation would cause a major shift from current pay scales, which base salaries on degrees and years of experience.

A good recap of the bill and what's happened so far is here.

In this item, we want to explore Sink's claim about who would pay to implement the new education initiatives, and whether or not the bill creates an "unfunded mandate." We've heard others make a similar claim, including Duval County Schools superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals and Republican state Rep. Julio Robaina of Miami.

What's the cost?

First, we need to set some boundaries -- in this case, by defining unfunded mandate.

We like this definition, which was offered by the presidents of the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida League of Cities in a recent guest editorial:

A mandate is a program or service that the state or federal government requires local governments to provide, but they do not provide funding to pay for it.

Second, it's very clear there are costs associated with passing SB 6.

The actual price tag, however, is "indeterminate," according to a legislative analysis. It points to unknown costs associated with:

  • Developing and modifying the system to assess student learning gains;
  • Developing and revising the teacher and school-based administrator appraisal system to include student learning gains;
  • Developing a system of teacher compensation to include student performance, as measured by student learning gains, and differentiated responsibilities, such as assignment to a school in a high priority area or teaching in a critical shortage area;
  • Revising teacher contracts to assist in making personnel decisions; and
  • Training personnel to implement the revised systems.

"School districts will incur additional costs associated with the development or acquisition of end-of-course assessments for each subject area and grade level that is not tested by statewide assessments or AP, IB, AICE, or industry certification examinations," a House analysis of the companion bill, HB 7189, found. "However, the fiscal impact of these activities is indeterminate."

The Department of Education says overall teacher salaries could also increase, depending on how teachers perform in the new system.

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The overall pricetag depends on how much it costs local districts to implement the changes and how teachers perform, spokesman Tom Butler said. Butler noted that the implementation costs "could be supplemented" if the state receives a federal Race to the Top grant award. Florida lost in round 1 of the grant process, but plans on applying in round 2. Applications are due June 1, Butler said.

Who's got the bill?

At this point, it's crucial to get background about how Florida's schools are funded.

Florida's K-12 schools are funded through a combination of federal, state and local dollars. The core funding is filtered through the Florida Education Finance Program, a 1973 legislative initiative that attempts to equalize funding levels among school districts.

The state's contribution is almost entirely set by the Legislature, while local funds come almost entirely from property taxes.

The Legislature sets how much property taxes a school district must collect in order to receive state funding. The local school district then has the ability to levy additional property taxes.

According to the Florida Department of Education, school districts in 2007-08 received 40.27 percent of their financial support from state sources, 51.05 percent from local sources, and 8.68 percent from federal sources.

SB 6 sets aside 5 percent of federal, state and local Florida Eduaction Finance Program funds beginning in 2011 (roughly $900 million) to implement the new education initiatives, including end-of-course exams and the new performance pay system. Starting in 2014 that money would then be used to actually pay teachers (remember, that's when linking pay increases to student performance would start).

The money isn't new money, in the sense that it's in addition to current school budgets. It's simply carved out of the existing funding structure.

Let's think this through from both sides.

On one hand, the money is set aside to implement SB 6, so it clearly cannot be an unfunded mandate.

But on the other hand, the money essentially is being taken out of existing school budgets and spent a different way.

"I've heard that maybe they won't take it out of district money, that they'll take it out of state money," said Duval County Schools superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals, who recently wrote a letter to the editor about SB 6. "Well, however they carve it up, if they fence in 5 percent, I'm still 5 percent down."

Pratt-Dannals said his district would face a $42 million budget shortfall beginning in 2011 if SB 6 is approved, the same year the district also loses $43 million in federal stimulus money. A Race to Top grant could help, but it's unclear if the money would cover all the costs associated with SB 6.

"This is an UNFUNDED mandate," state Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, said in a press release April 1, 2010. "School districts will have to 'cobble-wobble together' the funding to put all the provisions into place or they will be PENALIZED and lose state funding."

The ruling

In its simplest terms, SB 6 identifies funding for the education policy changes. What's different is the funding the Senate identified already is being used by schools for something else. It's not like the Senate is paying for the education reforms with an increase to the cigarette tax, or some other revenue stream. To fund their proposed reforms, Republicans in the Legislature are essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul.

And it's that funding scheme that produces the same result as if the Legislature didn't fund SB 6 at all. They are fencing in 5 percent of a school district's budget to implement the statewide changes, without any promise that additional funds will be coming down the road. The funding mechanism will force school districts to either cut budgets or raise taxes. Yes, a Race to the Top grant may help. But no one knows if the money's coming, or if it's enough.

Sink called the Republican education plan an "unfunded mandate." We rate her claim True.

Our Sources

Alex Sink campaign, E-mail interview with Kyra Jennings, March 31, 2010

Alex Sink campaign, press release opposing Senate Bill 6, March 31, 2010

Florida Senate, Senate Bill 6

St. Petersburg Times
, "Senate passes series of significant education changes," March 25, 2010

St. Petersburg Times
, "House Republicans push through anti-tenure bill," April 1, 2010

Duval County Schools, letter to editor from superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals," March 31, 2010

Duval County Schools, interview with Ed Pratt-Dannals, April 1, 2010

Florida Education Association, interview with Mark Pudlow, April 1, 2010

State. Rep. Julio Robaina, press release, April 1, 2010

Florida Senate, Senate Bill 6 legislative analysis

Florida Department of Education, Funding for Florida School District 2009-2010, accessed April 1, 2010

State Sen. John Thrasher, guest editorial, April 1, 2010

Florida Department of Education, Interview with Tom Butler, April 2, 2010

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Alex Sink says controversial education bill is unfunded mandate for local schools

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