Florida’s Education Funding Fails Across the Board
Providing a quality education to all of Florida’s students is a core constitutional responsibility of state government and critical to economic growth. Yet, school districts in Florida are dealing with a crushing teacher shortage, bus driver shortage, and overall operating cost growth that has outpaced revenue. Florida’s average teacher pay ranked 49th in the nation in 2020. All these issues are directly tied to Florida’s ongoing underinvestment in K-12 public schools.
Education Law Center’s report on state school funding, “Making the Grade,” paints a woeful picture for Florida. It grades each state and D.C. on three metrics: funding level (cost-adjusted, per-pupil revenue from state and local sources), funding distribution (the extent to which additional funds are distributed to districts with high student poverty levels), and funding effort (funding allocated to PreK-12 public education as a percentage of the state’s economic activity). Florida was one of only two states to receive an ‘F’ in all three categories. The Sunshine State ranked 45th for funding level, at $4,484 below the national per-pupil average of $15,487 for school year 2018-19 (the most recent Census data available).
The state not only ranked dismally for adequacy of funding level, but perhaps more surprisingly, the report found the state’s distribution of funds relative to district poverty level was highly unequal and regressive. On average, high poverty districts received 12 percent or $1,492 less per pupil than low poverty districts, after adjusting for local wage factors. (See Fig. 2C below from the Education Law Center report.)
But how could this be? Florida’s formula for school funding is touted as one of the most equitable in the nation. The explanation lies in the large disparities in counties’ tax bases, a local funding “loophole,” and a long history of state underinvestment in Florida’s public schools.
Local Property Tax Reliance Reduces Funding Equity and Hurts Property-Poor Districts
The Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) dictates how much funding each school district receives annually using student counts cost factors for programs such as Exceptional Student Education (ESE) and English Language Learners (ELL), district cost differences, and other variables. Notably absent from the formula, however, is the number of students in poverty in each school district, the inclusion of which would improve the equitable nature of the FEFP.
The “Required Local Effort” school property tax required of all counties feeds into the FEFP. By redistributing some dollars from wealthier districts with higher property values to less well-off districts, the FEFP has widely been regarded as one of the nation’s most equitable K-12 state funding formulas since its inception.
However, the FEFP is only the centerpiece of funding for Florida’s school districts. Other components, such as state categorical funding and federal funding, are provided to local districts via formulas based on student counts. And importantly, districts can leverage local revenue options as well. Funding from the supplemental voter-approved property taxes stays wholly within the district’s budget. Thus, as more local school districts feel compelled to ask voters to raise revenue in the face of state funding shortfalls, the funding for schools across the state has begun to diverge significantly depending on local property values, which contributes to the regressive distribution of funds as identified by Education Law Center.
The FEFP and the Fight for Funding Equity
The FEFP was created by the state Legislature in June 1973, using recommendations submitted by Governor Rubin Askew’s Citizen’s Committee on Education. This policy development was highly influenced by school funding news at the federal level. In March 1973, the US Supreme Court ruled in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that, while “the need for (school funding) reform is apparent,” the right to an education was not a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution and that school financing via local property taxes was constitutional. The majority opinion also urged that state courts and Legislatures should be the ones to take up the issue of school funding inequities.
The 5-to-4 decision has had its detractors because of its long-standing impact on school funding equity; scholars have included it when listing the U.S. Supreme Court’s worst decisions. At the time, in his dissenting opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall warned that the decision should be viewed “as a retreat from our historic commitment to equality of educational opportunity and as unsupportable acquiescence in a system which deprives children in their earliest years of the chance to reach their full potential as citizens.”
Justice Thurgood Marshall warned that the decision should be viewed “as a retreat from our historic commitment to equality of educational opportunity”
After Rodriguez, school finance reform cases largely wound through state Supreme Courts, and Florida was no exception. Historically, “property-poor” districts in Florida have sued the state over the inequitable distribution of funds related to the optional property tax millage. In 1979, the school board of Escambia County sued Florida’s Department of Education (Gindl v. Department of Education) contending that the discretionary millage levied by school boards created an unequal effect on school finances in the state, running counter to the equal protection clauses in the federal and state constitutions and the education uniformity provision in Florida’s state constitution. The Florida Supreme Court at that time upheld the discretionary millage as constitutional, ruling that Florida’s constitution did not require equality of funding, only a “substantial equality standard.” Property-poor school districts continued to fight against the discretionary millage, and in 1987, 22 districts brought suit against the state once more, contending that the FEFP did not adequately equalize funding because of the local discretionary millage, and underfunded property-poor (and often high-poverty) districts.
These suits failed, and Florida’s school funding advocates turned to fighting for funding “adequacy” in court, not just for equity. In 1998, voters in Florida passed an amendment to the state constitution making education a “paramount duty.” This spurred litigation around funding adequacy. The most significant of these court cases culminated in 2019, when the Florida Supreme Court deemed the issue non-justiciable, reasoning that funding is a policy decision to be left for the state Legislature. This meant that the only foreseeable steps forward to improve school funding adequacy and equity in Florida was through legislative advocacy.
Toward Reckoning with the Shortcomings of the FEFP
In January 2019, a research firm presented a state-funded study of the FEFP, its district cost differential formula, and recommendations to Florida’s House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee. The researchers reiterated that the additional voted millage option was a disequalizing force on Florida’s schools—that a 1 mill levy in Monroe County would draw down $3,363 per pupil, while in Union County it would only generate $112 in revenue per pupil. According to the report, by enacting a 1 mill property tax, 10 districts would receive more than $1,000 per pupil, 33 districts would generate less than $500 per pupil, and three districts less than $200 for FY 2018-19. While any school district can ask its voters to approve an additional 1 mill, only a select few in Florida are able to generate significant resources by leveraging their higher property values.
…a 1 mill levy in Monroe County would draw down $3,363 per pupil while in Union County it would only generate $112 in revenue per pupil.
In line with this report, Florida’s Legislature has in recent years acknowledged concerns about the inequity of overall funding per student by creating a new allocation to the FEFP: the Funding Compression and Hold Harmless allocation. This funding is distributed to school districts with less-than-average funding per pupil; however, in FY 2021-22, it only contributed 25 percent of the difference and no more than $100 per FTE, and the Legislature only appropriated $50.2 million for the allocations in FY 2022. While the Funding Compression program is a move in the right direction, the caps on the amounts available to property-poor districts through this allocation means that it only improves funding equity in Florida by a small measure.
“The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” – Article IX, Section 1, Florida Constitution
Florida has long ranked in the bottom fifth for public K-12 education spending per pupil. While the underfunding of education has angered advocates, the “equitable” nature of the state’s funding formula has generally garnered high marks. However, since the Great Recession, the Legislature’s continued underfunding of education has spurred a growing number of school districts to turn to voters via referenda to raise local dollars. “Property-poor” districts are at a significant resource disadvantage when it comes to tax revenues, and students in these districts have suffered the consequences. It is past time for the Legislature to both adequately fund K-12 education in Florida—at pre-Great Recession levels—and refresh the state’s funding formula so that property-poor districts are not consistently left behind.
Echoes of the Past
While the FEFP formula was created in 1973, Florida laws and policies going back to the nineteenth century set the groundwork for how the state approaches taxation and education spending, often establishing a deeply disparate treatment by race and family income. School segregation and funding inequities were intertwined at the very founding of Florida’s K-12 public school system. The same politicians and forces supportive of segregation and fighting civil rights for communities of color also fought increased school spending and funding equity. Present-day legislators and public school advocates should have a deep understanding of Florida’s historic inequitable policies in order to competently grapple with how to improve the state’s system for school investments.
1866 – Black Codes Establish School Funding Discrimination
Revenue and school expenditure politics in post-Civil War Florida were infused with white backlash. The racist “Black Code” laws in Florida included provisions regarding taxation, schools, and race. In 1866, the Florida Legislature passed laws establishing schools for African Americans but stipulated that they would be paid for only with taxes levied on formerly enslaved individuals, and that the state’s education fund was only for white schools. In 1868, the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, giving equal protection under the law and undermining the legality of southern Black Codes. However, Florida and other southern states responded by passing segregationist Jim Crow laws and continued to fight back against the federal government’s push for equality under the law.
Present-day legislators and public school advocates should have a deep understanding of Florida’s historic inequitable policies in order to competently grapple with how to improve the state’s system for school investments
1885 – Florida’s 1885 Constitution Codifies School Segregation
By enforcing segregation in Florida’s schools, the state Legislature not only created a separate education system for Black and white students, but also starved the Black schools of resources to reinforce an institutional system built on the premise of white supremacy. Black students in Jim Crow-era Florida attended schools without basic utilities and materials, were deprived transportation, and given shorter school years and fewer grades than their white counterparts. Until the 1940s, salaries for Black teachers in Florida were less than half those for white teachers on average. Per pupil funding for Black students was a small fraction of spending per white pupil — for example, in 1918, the per pupil funding for white students in Volusia County was $138.63 while Black schools only received $13.19 per student.
By enforcing segregation in Florida’s schools, the state Legislature not only created a separate education system for Black and white students, but also starved the Black schools of resources to reinforce an institutional system built on the premise of white supremacy.
1955 – The Pork Chop Gang Fights Desegregation and Government Funding
Prior to Florida’s reapportionment of its Legislature in the mid-1960s, Northern Florida was dramatically overrepresented in the state Senate. Almost each northern county had its own senator, while southern Florida had a burgeoning population and much less representation in Tallahassee. In the mid-1950s, the rural northern bloc of state senators known as the “Pork Chop Gang” for their powerful “pork barrel” spending was deeply entrenched against reapportionment of the Legislature, integration of schools and society, and efforts to increase state revenue and services. The term “gang” was fairly accurate: in 1955, the senators gathered at a North Florida fishing camp to take a “blood oath” committing to “vote together preserve the southern way of life: rural values, racial segregation, and minimal government.”
1968 – Florida’s Teachers Walk Out
In the first statewide teacher strike in the U.S., an estimated 27,000 teachers protested the longstanding disinvestment in Florida’s public schools by handing in resignation slips and walking out. Black teachers and white teachers joined together to demand higher pay and improved school budgets — the newly elected Governor Claude Kirk had promised improvements, but the teachers protested after it became apparent that his campaign promises were just empty rhetoric. The strike ended on March 8, 1968, after two-and-a-half weeks, when the recently integrated Florida Education Association and the state agreed on increasing investments in education. Some of the striking teachers were not rehired as retaliation.