Not So Fast: Gov. Scott's $1 Billion Education Increase Isn't What It Seems

December 08, 2011 4:01 pm ET — Kate Conway

Gov. Rick Scott

A fair number of headlines on Gov. Rick Scott's (R-FL) 2012 budget proposal, released yesterday, talk up its $1 billion boost to education funding. Scott is taking the opportunity to reverse his image as a foe of public education, declaring, "I'm not signing a budget that doesn't significantly increase state funding for education."

That sounds pretty good, especially coming from a governor who spent his campaign and the initial months of his gubernatorial tenure threatening to slice, reallocate, or just plain undermine public school funding. But, it turns out, the story behind this year's Florida school money is more complicated than a simple change of heart by its governor.

Last year, Scott proposed to cut state education spending by 10 percent, and then signed a budget that ended up slashing almost 8 percent, or around $1.3 billion. Draining those funds from education forced layoffs, eliminated school athletics programs, and increased burdens on teachers and school staff.

So what Scott's really proposing to do with this budget is to restore some (not all) of the money he raided from education last year — and he seems to think he deserves recognition as a champion of education.

Unfortunately for Florida's students, the education funding picture is even worse than a one-year loss of funds.

In 2009, with state revenues dropping, billions of dollars from the Recovery Act were allocated to Florida's K-12 public schools. By June 2011, the state had received over $5 billion to help public education. But as of the 2012 budget, that money is gone, leaving the state to plug a revenue hole that would only have been exacerbated if Gov. Scott had gotten his way on tax cuts.

The disappearing Recovery Act funds mean that, even if the proposed $1 billion restoration gets through Florida's Republican-controlled legislature, most districts will still be grappling with a net decrease in per-student funding. In short, however enthusiastically Scott may be touting his newfound interest in education, his proposal would still leave schools having to make do with less:

Scott's budget would increase per-pupil spending to $6,372, an increase of about $142, and assume enrollment growth of 30,000 students. But because he would replace only about half of the $550 million in federal stimulus money that bolstered school district budgets this year, most districts would still see a net decline in per-pupil funding.

What's more, Scott would pull that $1 billion from the state's contribution to Medicaid, which his budget proposes to slash by nearly $2 billion. As Democratic state Sen. Nan Rich says, that amounts to "pitting one critical priority against another." According to Scott, who points out that "no [other] program in this state has grown this fast and cost this much," the cuts are "tough choices," but they're necessary to rein in a program that has doubled in cost over the last decade.

What doesn't appear to factor into Scott's readiness to make Medicaid cuts is the recession. A large portion of the increase in Florida's Medicaid ranks has come since 2007, with the number of beneficiaries rising from 2 million to 3.19 million. According to the Fiscal Times, that rise is mostly due to "the recession and an 11.5 percent unemployment rate", which have prompted more and more people on the margins of financial stability to turn to Medicaid. That's what's prone to happen in a recession, and that's precisely why it's exactly the wrong time to start undermining the most vulnerable Floridians' access to health care.

Scott's newfound commitment to public education looks a lot like part of his public relations effort to drag up his tanking poll numbers. And if he were standing up in front of the state to admit he was wrong about starving the programs that prepare Florida's children and preserve the health of the state's most needy, that would be one thing. Unfortunately, it seems more likely that he's realized that pulling the rug out from under Florida's kids is very unpopular, and is hoping Floridians will forget about the fact that last year's cuts outweigh this year's enthusiastic proposal.