Lawmakers could revisit school funding formula


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A House panel Thursday began delving into an arcane and potentially controversial issue that has lingered in Florida’s education system for years --- how to divvy up money among the state’s school districts.

The issue focuses primarily on determining how much it costs to hire teachers and other school employees in various parts of the state. A price-level index, which is calculated to try to represent those costs, is part of a broader formula that lawmakers approve each year to distribute money to districts.

But the index has long faced scrutiny, with questions about whether it benefits some districts at the expense of others. Lawmakers included $100,000 in this year’s budget to hire a consulting firm to conduct a study, and House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said the House will examine the issue.

“I think it’s something the House is certainly looking at and will be studying,” Latvala said after his panel heard a presentation Thursday on a report by the consulting firm, The Balmoral Group.

Latvala said that anytime lawmakers change the funding formula it will affect school districts but that the House doesn’t want to pick “winners and losers.”

The broader school-funding formula, known as the Florida Education Finance Program, takes into account numerous factors in distributing money and totals about $21.1 billion this year. Those factors range from enrollment numbers to student transportation.

But debates about the costs of hiring school employees have flared over the years and were particularly controversial in 2003 and 2004 as then-Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, spurred changes in the calculations. The changes benefited some school districts and caused financial hits for other districts.

A key part of the changes involved factoring in the presence of “amenities,” such as proximity to beaches, in looking at where people want to live and how much they are willing to accept as wages. Some beachfront school districts, such as Volusia County, have long argued that they have been penalized by factoring amenities into the equation.

Material presented to the House panel Thursday by The Balmoral Group said the “working hypothesis” of the price-level index is that the “variables chosen in the formula are accurate predictors of wages across all counties.” But the consulting firm also offered an “alternative” hypothesis that raised questions about factoring in amenities.

“The approach assumes all teachers have the same preferences for the same levels and types of amenities,” the alternative hypothesis said. “While each year’s predicted index model may be unbiased from a statistical standpoint, it is unclear that the process does not consistently bias certain counties above or below the average year on year.”

With the annual legislative session starting March 5, it remains too early to know whether lawmakers will make changes. Also, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, pointed Thursday to a move by lawmakers in the current year’s budget to help narrow funding gaps among districts.

That move involved providing about $56.8 million in additional money for districts that in the prior year received per-student funding that was below the state average --- a move known in education budget circles as a “compression” adjustment.

“On the Senate side, we’re always interested in making sure that educational dollars are apportioned in an appropriate and fair way across the state. … I thought that there were some inequities in the system before last year, and I think compression funding went a long way towards addressing those inequities in a positive manner,” Bradley said.