The big news at the Dec. 9 Orange County School Board meeting may have been the time-swap imbroglio, its effect on parents' schedules and its inevitable reversal by the board, but the reported $700,000 saved by the convoluted scheme of trading middle-school hours with high-school hours was only a drop in the bucket. Florida's schools are finding themselves at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to statewide budget cuts, with Orange County alone losing a $23 million chunk of the $355 million held back in the state's 2008-2009 education budget.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so 32-year-old Carl Howard — a fifth-grade teacher at Wyndham Lakes Elementary School, as well as a member of Orange County's Soil and Water Conservation Board — joined with more than 200 other teachers, parents and students last month in launching Fund Our Schools & Help Our Children, a Facebook group that wants to pressure the state legislature into considering a 1-cent, three-year sales tax increase. The tax, they say, could generate $3.5 billion each year it's in effect and would more than make up for the shortcomings they're facing now, and those that have led to Florida having the dubious honor of being ranked 49th in America for state school funding.
Of course, it's a pipe dream. Florida's Republican-dominated legislature is unlikely to opt for the tax-and-spend route, given the state's notoriously loophole-ridden, corporation-friendly tax structure. But in these dire times, this grass-roots Hail Mary could be the only hope left for the state's crumbling public school system.
Howard sees the trouble firsthand. His class size jumped from 17 students last year to 24 this year, but teaching materials are scant, qualified teachers' aides and substitute teachers are being let go, and important field trips are being canceled.
"What I'm concerned about is that the children are missing out," he says. "My primary concern is that we're not providing the best education. We're not even providing a good education."
This while the parents are suffering rising unemployment, record foreclosures and a declining tax base. Consequently, the number of kids eligible for free and reduced lunches is up to 45.8 percent of the state's school population, above the national average of 41.4 percent (based on data from the 2005-2006 school year). After-school programs, meanwhile, are dwindling. Principals at schools like Walker Middle School are asking 11-year-old students to come up with economic solutions for the district. In short, nobody knows what to do. It's a perfect storm, one with Florida's kids in the balance. And the cuts keep coming.
So Howard and others decided to raise their voices.
"What happened was a number of teachers became associated through the election season," says Howard. "So, when that was done, we took a breath and looked around. At the same time, the issue of school funding was coming to a head. We decided to run with our activism and get something done."
An important part of their argument for the tax increase is that the burden would be shared by tourists, who would unwittingly help educate our kids by spending money at the theme parks. Howard says the state could then consider potential gambling revenues or tobacco taxes to shore up the rest.
Howard also says that some school budget cuts could come without ever negatively affecting the students: He suggests turning lights off, auditing extraneous textbooks and learning materials, and giving expert training to teachers already in the district rather than bringing new people in from outside. But for now, a cash influx is needed just to keep the schools' heads above water.
There's some institutional support for the nascent Fund Our Schools plan. Mike Cahill, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, is frustrated at the state's abysmal funding ranking. "Absolutely, they have to look at some way to fund the education system better," he says.
(Representatives for Orange County Public Schools either refused comment or did not return phone calls for this story.)
In October, Florida Education Association president Andy Ford issued a statement calling for the penny tax increase as well. "Our elected leaders are going to have to understand that a top-tier public education system requires investment. It requires a consistent, stable flow of revenue," he said. "The key to coming up with that stable flow of revenue would be a serious, top-to-bottom look at the state's tax system that would also seek to smooth out inequalities and make sure everyone paid their fair share."
Which may be precisely the problem, says state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando.
"Really, overall, why raise taxes on the general population when we continue to have these huge tax exemptions out there that could really plug a great deal of the hole in the state budget?" he asks. "Nothing's going to pass when you have `a conservative` ideology that considers that closing loopholes is a tax increase. They've shifted the tax burden over to the middle class."
Howard isn't terribly optimistic about his campaign's prospects, but he thinks it's important to get the word out about what's really going on. He points to a recent referendum in Franklin County, Florida, wherein citizens voted to finance much-needed raises for the county's teachers. If Fund Our Schools goes nowhere, he may opt for a local effort in the future. For now, though, he's holding out hope.
"Realistically, it's an uphill battle," he says. "Do I think it can happen? Yes."[email protected]