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.



7 Responses

  1. Joe

    Funny how all tea baggers tout themselves as being pro-constitutionalist while at the same time picking and choosing where they want to follow the Constitution. Rick Scott is trying to destroy public education and therefore proving he doesn’t care about our Constitution at all. Get him out of office quick before he continues to destroy our children’s chance to be competitive in the market place for the future!!!!

  2. jaxjags

    I think a lot of the teabaggers aren’t happy about the hypocricy either. The question is will they do something about it in 2012? Or will they continue to vote for these idiots, knowing what they do, because they’d sooner vote for a lying crook then a democrat?

  3. JohnR

    “UnConstitutional”? As we have seen, most recently in Wisconsin, that term, like “legal”, means whatever the GOP when in power decides that it means. Nixon felt that when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal. Nowadays, the operative statement is “When a Republican does it, that means that it’s not illegal.” ‘Constitutional’ government officially became a historical memory sometime in early 2002, and the rot has trickled down to the state level.

  4. SteveO

    It is NOT unconstitutional. Quit crying and get to work. 2012 END OF AN ERROR!

  5. Dan

    The bottom line in education in Florida is that most people just don’t care because it doesn’t apply to them. A large number of Florida residents moved to Florida from up north. Let’s also face it, warm weather is not the only thing that drew them here. Florida has the lowest taxes both corporate and personal of any state in the union.

    Florida began gentrification 40 years ago. That happens when people with money come into an area, and buy up real estate at bargain prices compared to what they are used to paying. These people are generally empty nesters and have no children in the school system. I have even heard people say, why should I pay school taxes, I don’t have anyone on school, my children are grown.

    So, Florida has languished at the very bottom in education since the late 60’s. There is no personal income tax, property taxes have huge exemptions, and older people even get a larger exemption.

    So, you have people who just don’t care about anything but not paying high taxes. The problem is with the current situation, its not just going to affect the schools. It’s going to affect fire and police protection, highway maintenance, and a sundry list of other things.

    I get sick of the current idiot governor Scott, thinking he can draw business to Florida. Florida is already one of the most business friendly states in the country. If new businesses were going to move here, they would already be here. Florida is a right to work state, you don’t have to join a union. I live in Maine and Florida and Maine have one thing in common, we import way more than we export, and we are at the tail ends of the transportation hubs.

    Are his cuts unconstitutional, probably not from a legal standpoint, but they are immoral. But remember people, you voted for a man who ran a company that cheated the government out millions of dollars and was fined one of the largest fines ever meted out. Yet no one went to jail, or was fined. Scott is like teflon, nothing seems to stick to him, but he certainly wants to stick it to us.

  6. Vincent Collogan

    Rick Scott is the worst thing to ever happen to FL. With governors who ignore the FL Constitution, it’s no wonder FL cannot get out of the near bottom of the list ranking it has had in education for decades. With the lowest approval rating in history in any state, Rick Scott will surely be a 1 term governor. Let’s hope he is lame duck and does not further undermine anything.


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