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    State tries to set record straight on school funding

    Gov. Bush and others say bad data resulted in less federal education money than expected.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 6, 2002

    Facing the prospect of getting less federal money than expected for high-poverty schools and the political embarrassment that it would bring, Florida officials tried Wednesday to convince the U.S. Department of Education that school spending increased during Gov. Jeb Bush's first budget.

    But it is unlikely the effort will mean more money in the coming year.

    "This allocation has been finalized," said U.S. Undersecretary of Education Gene Hickock, the third-highest ranking education official in Washington. "This is not going to affect this year's allocation."

    It could help Florida in the future, Hickock said.

    At stake are millions of dollars from the federal Title I program, which helps school districts around the nation boost spending in high-poverty schools. Florida officials learned recently that the state would get $31.8-million less than expected because the federal department determined that Florida's per pupil spending dropped by 1 percent in 1999-2000, the only state that dropped. The U.S. DOE relied on numbers from the state.

    After learning of the problem, Florida Education Secretary Jim Horne said the numbers sent to Washington were incorrect. He said the new numbers sent to Washington late Tuesday show Florida with a 4.6 percent increase in per pupil spending in 1999-2000.

    On Wednesday, Horne and Gov. Jeb Bush announced that the U.S. DOE agreed with Florida's new numbers.

    "My hope is there won't be any lost money," Bush said.

    Hickock acknowledged the U.S. DOE got the new information. "We are assuming that data is accurate," he said.

    The year in question, 1999-2000, was the first budget year for Gov. Jeb Bush. So the fact that the federal government believed Florida decreased per pupil spending provided grist for the political mill Wednesday. The Democratic Party and gubernatorial candidates quickly challenged Bush's school spending record.

    "U.S. DOE says Florida was the only state with a decrease in per pupil spending," said Nicole Harberger, spokeswoman for the Janet Reno campaign. "Jeb Bush says it's just a case of fuzzy math. And lucky for him he's got a brother in (Washington, D.C.) who might just be able to adjust those numbers for him."

    Alan Stonecipher, spokesman for Democratic candidate Bill McBride, said he hopes the governor can get more Title I money for the state,but said the problem raises questions of accountability.

    "Make a couple of math mistakes here and there and Jeb fixes it," Stonecipher said. "But if Johnny makes some math errors on the FCAT and maybe he doesn't go on to fourth-grade. It doesn't seem right."

    -- Staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

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