Governor Rick Scott’s “Florida Families First” budget recommendations are drawing a mixed reaction from children’s advocates – high praise from some, but frustration from others.
Educators were happy with Scott for recommending a $1.2 billion increase in spending for K-12 public schools and $2,500, across-the-board raises for teachers.
“We are very supportive and appreciative of the tangible commitment that Governor Scott is proposing for our schools which will benefit both students and teachers,” said St. Johns County schools Superintendent Joseph Joyner, in a statement released Friday by the governor’s office. “With his continued commitment to improving education in Florida, we can only expect to see even better things to come for St. Johns’ students and families.”
And Scott recommended $1.5 million for prevention services to keep youths out of the juvenile justice system, plus $145,360 for juvenile health and mental health, including psychiatric consultation and contract clinical specialists.
“Keeping kids from entering the system in the first place – and once there from moving deeper into it – is a message this budget sends loud and clear,” said Stacy Gromatski, president and CEO of the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services, in a statement released Thursday.
Scott also seeks to beef up health and human-service programs that count children among their clients. For example, he proposed $1.5 million for Kristi House, a Miami program that serves sex-trafficking victims.
But backers of early childhood education and an expansion of Medicaid were disappointed.
The governor’s proposed budget does not include a Medicaid expansion that was included in the federal Affordable Care Act, with Scott saying he had not made a decision about the issue. Karen Woodall, a lobbyist on children’s health issues, said expanding Medicaid would help provide economic security to families, an issue she called the most important for children.
“The governor’s budget is called ‘Florida Families First,’ ” she said. “But when given the opportunity to extend health insurance to more than a million Floridians – including tens of thousands of working parents – he has chosen not to bring billions of dollars set aside by the federal government for Florida to provide health care – and also, by the way, bringing that money into Florida’s economy.”
And while Scott garnered kudos from educators for boosting funds for K-12, colleges and universities, there were no new dollars in the governor’s spending plan for early learning, despite a waiting list of 68,000 children for school-readiness programs statewide.
“Nothing I saw in the budget message tells me that early learning is anywhere close to the priority it needs to be,” said David Lawrence, co-founder and president of the Children’s Movement of Florida. “One example only: How can we stay at $2,386 per pre-kindergarten student, and yet pay at least $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile?”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich, known for her children’s advocacy while in the Legislature, said education is a continuum, starting with child care, and that early learning was key to future success.
“We could have been the [school readiness] model for the nation, and instead we don’t meet the quality national standards,” said Rich. “You can’t have high quality when you fund it at $2,386 and the national average is $4,100. And we still don’t have even a goal of degreed teachers, of people who actually have the background and education to teach 4-year-olds.”
The state Office of Early Learning has been through some turmoil in the last year, and Rep. Erik Fresen, chairman of the House subcommittee on education appropriations, is working on a bill to address governance and funding formula issues.
“It (Scott’s budget proposal) is level funding,” said Shan Goff, the new director of the Office of Early Learning, “and we are looking for ways we can maximize our services to families and children, given our current appropriations.”
Roy Miller, president of the Children’s Campaign, said that as an independent advocacy organization, he’s “always wary and generally skeptical of quotes from provider organizations in support of their overseers’ budgets.” Miller said his group will independently evaluate the budget.
“Our initial reaction, though, is that it is not need driven,” he said, “and we are circumspect about the catch phrase, ‘Florida Families First,’ when we immediately see reductions in juvenile justice and children and families. How many children is it serving? How large are the case loads? How many families are going without mental health, alcohol and drug treatment? How many families are on a waiting list for child care and before- and after-school programs?”
–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida