|February 12, 2009|
THE EDUCATIONAL FUNDING SITUATION
The UFF Senate met over the January 31 / February 1 weekend, and the meeting opened with a Legislative Session Briefing by two guests from the Public Policy Advocacy office of the Florida Education Association (UFF is affiliated with the FEA, which is the state union representing K-20 teachers in Florida). The guests started the discussion of the primary issue of the UFF Senate meeting: the state budget. The Special Session of the legislature had ended, and the guests described the result of the Special Session's efforts to plug a $ 2.3 billion hole in the budget. In particular, they reported that the cut to higher education was kept to the 4 % cut that the governor had already held back. Since other agencies were cut more (up to 12 %), this was regarded as a relief. But the respite may be short, for the state may soon be facing another shortfall of as much as four billion dollars.
Part of the problem is the economy. A primary proximate cause of the crisis was the collapse of the housing market, accompanied an implosion of available credit. According to the Center for American Progress, as of January, we are in the worst new homes sales market since the Census Bureau started collecting homes sales data in 1963. Meanwhile, the values of all homes have fallen 13.6 % in the last year – the largest drop since the Federal Reserve started collecting that data in 1952 – and home equity as a share of home values has fallen to 44.7 % (from about 60 % at the beginning of this decade).
All this has hit Florida's state funding very hard, for a lot of state revenue comes from taxes on "growth," i.e., house sales and the like. While there are usually about fifty thousand houses for sale in Florida, now there are about three hundred thousand, an excess that analysts expect will take a year (or longer) to sell off. "Growth" is a major source of Florida’s income, for as USF Professor Gary Mormino told the New Yorker, "Florida, in some ways, resembles a modern Ponzi scheme. Everything is fine for me if a thousand newcomers come tomorrow" (see the abstract posted by The New Yorker). Newcomers are no longer coming, and Florida's growth rate has fallen from second in the nation in 2005, to 47th.
But another part of the problem is the package of $ 18 billion in tax exceptions, exclusions, and miscellaneous cuts enacted during Governor Jeb Bush's terms in office. Not only did he leave the revenue system in a shambles before departing for a job advising Lehman Brothers (!), he left behind a mindset against tax reforms of any kind, which has contributed to the paralysis in Tallahassee.
Put together, the FEA's Public Policy Advocacy office noted that state revenues fell from $ 27 billion in 2005 – 2006 to $ 24 billion in 2007 – 2008, and forecasts that the revenues this year will be $ 22 billion, with about the same next year, assuming no policy changes. Closer to home, Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) funding for K-12, which was 60 % of the state budget twenty years ago, has fallen to 48 % of the state budget; UFF President Tom Auxter observed that this decline was the joint accomplishment of Governor Bush and his predecessor, Governor Lawton Chiles, as well as the Republican and the preceding Democratic legislatures that served with them.
The situation is rather dire. Retention is falling: about a seventh of all university faculty leave each year, and in the K-12 system, about half of all new teachers drop out within five years. Meanwhile, news from other states show what can happen: Nevada cut its university appropriation by 35 % and Arizona State furloughed its entire work force. We cannot take for granted that our state government will not be tempted to take similar steps.
The focus during most of the meeting was on what to do. Since we are educators, the focus turned to educating our fellow Floridians about the situation.
UFF WILL FIGHT THE CUTS
The primary focus was on Tallahassee. The FEA presented a legislative program, and outlined a plan to sell it to the legislature. Central to the program is increasing revenue, and the selling plan is to have educators across the state contact their legislators, either by phone or email, or even by attending rallies or helping lobby legislators in Tallahassee (UFF will support the travel of members, non-members, and those outside the bargaining unit who want to participate; details at the end of this article).
One proposal very reluctantly advanced was to institute tuition increases.
During the last few decades, higher education has increasingly come to be regarded more as a consumer commodity than as a public good, and politicians have become less willing to apply public funding for colleges and universities. Many academics – some of whom remember the opportunities they had when young, opportunities now being denied the coming generation – are very wary of burdening students who are already carrying unprecedented debts from student loans.
But with support from those very students, many academics are seeing tuition increases as the only mechanisms for fending off disaster, at least in the short term. The UFF has joined the Florida Student Association, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Council of 100 in advocating tuition hikes, along with substantial increases in need-based financial aid. "Across the U.S., Florida has one of the worst proportions of aid going to students who struggle to pay for college," UFF President Tom Auxter wrote, adding that if a plan advanced by Governor Charlie Crist is approved, "...that situation will dramatically improve within a few years."
But this is a band-aid, and the FEA (like many others) believe that Florida must clean up its taxation system. The battering ram is a proposal for a one-cent sales tax hike for the next three years; this would probably generate at least $ 3.5 billion a year, which would be dedicated to K-20 education. Despite its disadvantages (the sales tax is rather regressive), it has the advantage of simplicity and thus can serve as a "conversation changer": if the honorable representative dislikes this proposal, does the honorable representative have a better idea?
To press the point, the FEA is launching a campaign, which will include a Make Our Schools a Priority Rally at the University of Central Florida on Saturday, February 28 (the rally has a website); the FEA (including the UFF) will be asking educators to phone and email legislators on February 28 to emphasize the point. The legislature's regular session opens on March 3, and President Auxter said that legislators are now preparing for the session, and he said that this is a good time to contact legislators to let them know what is actually happening at schools, colleges, and universities. Auxter said that many legislators are actually unaware of the realities, and if teachers do not give them first-hand accounts of the situation, they may rely more on abstract and ideologically-driven position statements generated by anti-tax and anti-government activists and lobbyists.
For those who are interested, information on how to communicate with representatives (using only personal computers and phones – or by old-fashioned mail or dropping by their local offices) is available on-line. The FEA maintains a page on Effective Lobbying Techniques ; the contact information for Florida legislators is also on-line, and a page for representatives. In addition, UFF will send activists to participate in the February 28 rally in Orlando, and also in two events in Tallahassee in March (a rally in early March, and a lobbying visit on March 18). For those interested in participating, UFF will support the travel of any UFF member, UFF non-member, or friend outside the bargaining unit: contact UFF Chapter President Sherman Dorn if interested.