Gov. Rick Scott has proposed $3 billion in cuts to public education.
(Photo courtesy of Rick Scott.)

By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Article IX, section 1 of the Florida Constitution states:

The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.

It doesn’t say that cutting taxes is a fundamental value. Or that setting up political slush funds for legislative leaders is a fundamental value. Not even that private school is a fundamental value.

It not only says, without ambiguity, that public education is a fundamental value of the people of the state of Florida — but high quality education.

“It’s one of the strongest, if not the strongest provision of any state in the country,” says former Florida House Speaker Jon Mills. Mills should know. He helped draft the language in 1998 as a member of the Constitutional Revision Commission.

And yet, for all the high-minded aspirations expressed in the constitution, the state has consistently foundered near the bottom in educational rankings, including college preparedness, graduation rates and, certainly, school funding.

And now, the state legislature — with not just the blessing but the urging of Gov. Rick Scott — is pushing to cut anywhere from 5 to 10 percent from public education.

Such disregard for public education has become the norm for the current wave of tea party-backed Republican governors: Scott here in Florida, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, Rick Snyder in Michigan, and Chris Christie in New Jersey.

But when that disregard runs into state constitutional language, it can be troublesome.

For Christie in New Jersey last week, such legal irony meant that a special master found that his $1 billion cuts to education did not allow the state to deliver a “thorough and efficient” education to New Jersey children. The finding could put the next New Jersey state budget on hold.

Could the same thing happen here in Florida? After all, if a billion dollars in budget cuts could threaten a “thorough and efficient” education, consider what $3 billion in cuts could mean to “high-quality education.”

The vehicle is already in place to challenge Scott’s and legislators’ gutting of public education.

Last year, Mills helped put together a lawsuit on behalf of two groups of Florida parents, alleging that the state had failed to meet the obligations of Article IX, section 1.

The state of Florida immediately tried to have the lawsuit thrown out. But Leon County Judge Jackie Fulford dismissed the state’s objection and let the lawsuit stand. The state then appealed it to the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee.

“That holding (in New Jersey) is, in essence, what we’re saying,” Mills said.

If the court finds in favor of the parents’ groups, it could similarly stop the current gutting of public education.

But it probably won’t change this year’s budget.

“Any lawsuit like this is going to take time and patience,” Mills says. “The likelihood is pretty high that the situation after this session will be significantly worse for public education.”

Scott is demanding schools absorb cuts of $3.3 billion — $1.75 billion this year alone — while pushing for property and business tax cuts worth $4 billion.

And beside the tax cuts, Scott and legislators passed an education law that will require testing and an increase in the evaluation of teachers. That will place, according to Kathleen Oropeza of Fund Education Now, one of the plaintiffs in Mills’ lawsuit, a $2 billion burden on local school districts this year, and $1.8 billion every year hereafter. Money that the state won’t be paying.

“We’ve got $2 billion worth of unfunded mandates,” Oropeza says.

Her group suggests that, rather than gutting education, the state should first look to cut corporate loopholes.

“We provide $5 billion a year in corporate loopholes and exemptions,” she says. “That’s hard money.”

Considering Scott’s obsession with reducing tax rates for businesses — which are already among the lowest in the country — that’s not likely to happen.

Folks, what’s happening in Tallahassee these days is nothing short of scandalous.

Scott signed an executive order on March 22 that would mandate quarterly drug tests for state workers. And he’s pushing for more drug tests — to be self-paid by the poor Floridians applying for welfare. I suppose it’s just a coincidence that drug tests are offered by Solantic, a company in which the governor held a $62 million interest (he transferred his shares to his wife in January).

And then there’s Scott’s suggested overhaul of Medicaid, which would privatize the program — and be an additonal  boon to companies such as Solantic.

All of which could bring millions (billions?) to Scott … uhhh … I mean, his wife.

Senate leader Mike Haridopolis — who took $152,000 from Brevard Community College to write a 175-page (double-spaced) book about Florida politics that was never published — and House leader Dean Cannon just pushed through a bill that creates slush funds (called “leadership funds”) that former Gov. Charlie Crist, a fellow Republican, vetoed last year. Of the bill, Crist said: “The thing stinks.” And apparently because our state doesn’t have more pressing needs (such as 12 percent unemployment rate), the Florida House on March 25 passed a bill to ban automatic deductions for public employee union dues.

Scandalous might be too mild a word.