Bush oversells his spending on schools
By STEPHEN HEGARTY and CONSTANCE HUMBURG
As he runs for re-election, Jeb Bush offers eye-popping numbers to stake his claim as Florida's education governor.
In his speeches, letters to the editor and campaign Web site, the governor cites:
A 17.7 percent spending increase on public schools, totaling nearly $2-billion, since he took office three years ago.
A spending increase during those three years that he calls a record for any similar period in state history.
A $726-million, 6.1 percent spending increase proposed for schools in 2002-03, despite uncertain economic times.
As Bush put it in his State of the State address last month, "education funding remains at historic levels, and per-student funding is at an all-time high."
But an analysis by the St. Petersburg Times found:
Real education spending has remained flat under Bush.
Using all the financial assumptions most favorable to the governor, then accounting for inflation and 168,400 new students, the amount of money spent on each student has risen less than one-quarter of 1 percent since Bush took office in 1999. After accounting for inflation, that amounts to a $10.21 per student increase over three years.
Although Bush claims record spending increases in raw dollars over three years, his predecessor had larger percentage increases. Bush claims a three-year spending increase of 17.7 percent, but the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles had a spending increase of 19 percent over three years during his second term.
Bush proposes a 6.1 percent spending increase for 2002-03. But after accounting for new students and inflation, the increase shrinks to less than two-tenths of 1 percent.
Even that modest gain would not be the result of new revenue. About 60 percent would come from additional tax money fueled by rising property values. And 30 percent would come from a surplus in the state's retirement fund, courtesy of a booming stock market. That retirement fund windfall already enabled Bush to free up more than $2-billion for school districts to spend as they wished over the past three years.
Without that windfall, the governor could have seen public school spending drop two out of the past three years.
Bush would not have allowed that to happen, said spokeswoman Katie Baur. "This governor has made it very clear that education is his priority," she said. If the retirement surplus money hadn't been available to enhance spending for schools, "we would have found the money."
The governor does not dispute the Times' analysis that his $726-million proposed increase for the coming year would amount to an increase of less than two-tenths of 1 percent. All that matters, he says, is that there would be more spending, not less.
"That's what we've been saying," Bush said Friday. "I've not said that it's big or small, just that it's an increase."
Issue in re-election
Bush's record on education will be the defining issue in his campaign for re-election. The Republican boasts of record spending and sweeping changes in holding schools accountable for their performance. With more money and new policies, he contends he is making up for decades of neglect by his Democratic predecessors.
But with education bearing the brunt of recent budget cuts and tax dollars tight, opinion polls suggest voters are growing skeptical of Bush's education record. A recent nonpartisan poll for two newspapers found 57 percent of Florida voters said they are at least somewhat dissatisfied with public education under Bush.
A recent Times report, titled "Losing Ground," also found that Florida schools ranked 38th nationally in per pupil spending in 2000 and 43rd in class size in 1999. While Bush inherited those problems, in the upcoming campaign his opponents will blame him for a lack of improvement.
As a result, some educators and parents see a disconnect between Bush's claims of "historic" school spending and the budget cutting occurring in schools across Florida.
"I don't know how anybody can say we're ahead of where we were two or three years ago," said Pasco school district superintendent John Long, a Democrat and former House appropriations chairman. "How can I look a parent in the face and say "We're doing great, but I can't provide summer school for your child.' "
If schools are awash in cash, parents wonder, why did Pinellas County just eliminate summer school? Why is Hillsborough trimming alternative programs for troubled kids? Why is the Sarasota County school district going to voters next month to ask for a tax increase for schools?
"I don't know what they're talking about up there in Tallahassee," said parent Michelle Simoneau, who volunteers at her daughters' school, Sawgrass Lake Elementary in St. Petersburg. "I'm looking at the bottom line in my child's school, and I'm seeing cuts."
As a PTA board member at Belcher Elementary School, Holly Berry routinely asks local businesses to contribute money to her children's school. She's happy to do it. It helps her kids. It helps their teachers.
She is frustrated that the school is so strapped for cash that some of the business partnership money goes not to nifty classroom extras like computers and software, but to basics: copier paper, Band Aids for the school clinic.
"One teacher used partnership money for a pencil sharpener," Berry said. "A pencil sharpener? That's pretty basic.
"I know what people have heard about all the money going to schools, but go volunteer in a classroom," Berry said. "You'll see they don't have this, they don't have that."
The governor has an answer for parents like Holly Berry.
"I would feel their frustration because I have the exact same feeling of frustration," Bush said. The governor again said he has put record amounts of money into school budgets. He said the problem is that some districts spend that money unwisely.
"The districts that may not be as focused on classroom education, or perhaps overextended themselves on their salaries, are now confronted with making cuts," Bush said. "All I can tell you is, the facts are the money."
If only everyone could agree on the facts and the money.
The governor's supporters and his critics each can cite numbers to make their case for or against his education record. The key variable is whether to count the retirement surplus. The schools have to set aside money to pay retirement benefits, but since 1998, a surplus in the fund has allowed schools to keep money they otherwise would have had to contribute to the retirement system.
Chiles benefited from this pension surplus in his last education budget, but per student spending would have increased even without the benefit of that surplus. According to an annual report on school funding by the Florida Senate, Bush could have seen education spending decline in two out of three years without the surplus after inflation.
The Senate does not consider the retirement surplus as new revenue. Technically, it isn't. It's actually a reduced expense.
The Florida House offers a version more favorable to Bush. The House, the Department of Education and the governor's office treat the retirement surplus as new revenue. (The Times analysis used the numbers agreed upon by the House and the governor.)
As Bush spokeswoman Baur puts it, "How else do you explain the hundreds of millions of dollars available to the districts?"
So if the retirement surplus is counted as new revenue, education spending would increase three of four years, even after new students and inflation are included. The exception is the 2001-02 budget year, when the economic downturn forced spending cuts.
"Who is right? How should it be handled?" asked Doug Forth, budget director for the Pinellas County schools. "You're not talking about budgeting or accounting anymore. Now you're getting into politics."
Politically, the biggest beneficiary of the surplus is the governor. Critics say he shouldn't get credit for it. Bush supporters, however, say he deserves credit because he could have spent the windfall on something else.
The retirement surplus allowed Bush to increase per student spending as he enacted record tax cuts and opposed tax increases, the Times analysis shows.
How much did the schools benefit?
It freed up more than $2-billion for school boards to spend as they wish. In Pinellas County, for instance, it has freed up more than $10-million a year, on average. For employees that could mean the difference between a small raise or none at all.
But the district also is spending about $8.5-million more on insurance and $1.5-million in utility bills this year. Factor those into the equation and the surplus savings disappear.
"If not for this windfall, I don't know where we'd be," said Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, chairman of the Senate's education appropriations committee. "I think your back would be up against the wall."
Facing the critics
Bush touts his education record every chance he gets. But he can't get through a news conference without having to defend his school spending record.
It annoys the governor. But with an election approaching, he can expect more questions.
Facing protesters in Flagler County recently, Bush said he felt he was "living in a Kafka novel," referring to the frustrating and surreal illogic that characterizes the author's work. Bush seemed perplexed that critics say he has cut education funding when there is more money going to school districts.
But Bush's political hyperbole collides with detailed analysis by school administrators and his potential Democratic opponents in the governor's race.
"What is he bragging about?" said Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democratic candidate for governor who has been deconstructing and criticizing Bush's policies for years. "He can spin it all he wants. If you are a parent with a child in the schools, you know better."
"The governor doesn't talk about that; once you factor in inflation, you end up with no increase or a very small increase," said Bill McBride, the Tampa lawyer who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor. "The windfall should have been used to enhance school funding."
The use of the retirement surplus funds recalls the old debates over lottery money.
When the lottery started in 1988, Gov. Bob Martinez (who opposed the lottery) had a budget windfall of his own. Suddenly more than half a billion dollars were folded into the state budget for education. Educators and lawmakers argued over whether that money enhanced education or, through a budgeting shell game, simply replaced other money.
That's what some critics are asking about Bush's approach to education spending. Under Bush, the percentage of the education budget that comes from general revenue has shrunk, from 59 percent in 2000-01 to 56 percent in 2001-02. That loss was offset by an increase in local property tax dollars and boosted by the retirement fund surplus.
"We could have had real increases if the governor had kept the money in the education budget and added the (retirement surplus) money on top of that," said Marshall Ogletree, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association teachers union. "The governor could have been a major hero."
Despite the criticism and challenges, Bush rejects the complaints. To him, the math is simple.
"Per-student funding is up," Bush said. "And people don't believe it. I don't know why they don't."
-- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
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