Gov. Jeb Bush has acknowledged that Florida's education system desperately needs "stable funding," but has offered no ideas for a source.
Published October 13, 2003
Nearly five years into his tenure as education governor, Jeb Bush has responded to the financial desperation of community colleges with an assessment that is at once obvious and baffling. "We need to come up with a stable funding source," Bush said recently after a private meeting with community college presidents. "What we are doing now does not match the ebb and flow of growth."
Bush is right, of course, and virtually every serious analysis of Florida's regressive and narrowly based tax system in the past two decades has reached that same conclusion. The state's tax structure is volatile and inadequate, and, because it relies almost entirely on a sales tax that exempts large portions of the growing service economy, it spreads that thin burden in the cruelest of ways. Last year, Florida taxed people with annual incomes of $9,200 at five times the rate of those who earn almost $1-million.
Similarly, the need for greater investment in education has been well-established. Florida ranks near the bottom of all states in the amount of money it spends per capita on public schools and universities, and even the state Chamber of Commerce has issued a report calling for more: "The Legislature should develop a strategy to bring education funding per student at all levels - pre-K through graduate programs - closer in line with the national median. The state's budget should reflect the critical role that education plays in Florida's future."
That's why the governor's statement is so baffling in its utter detachment from his own policies to date. As governor, Bush has neither advocated nor supported a plan for stable education funding. He could not identify a possible funding source when asked to explain his recent remark. Worse, Bush has actively opposed the few attempts within the Legislature to rationalize the tax base, including a plan by former Senate President John McKay to remove unwarranted sales tax exemptions and lower the overall rate. Bush also has claimed credit for $8.1-billion in tax cuts that have only added to the problem.
Public schools are facing an immediate shortfall of roughly $72-million merely to deal with fall enrollment that exceeded projections, and the governor's spokeswoman said any attempt to dip into a $948-million federal economic stimulus grant would be "not fiscally responsible."
The governor is telling community college presidents he wants to avoid turning away 35,000 students who were denied classes this fall. He is telling university presidents they should not cap enrollment, though they have no money to pay for new students. He is telling school superintendents he supports a new prekindergarten program, which may cost $500-million a year, and smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. Yet last year at this time, he derided his re-election opponent, saying, "You can't be advocating something as governor and not have the responsibility to say how you would pay for it."