FILE - Broward County Florida school buses

Broward County school buses.

(The Center Square) – Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed fiscal 2023 budget would dedicate an historic $23.9 billion in funding to education, of which $13.3 billion would go to K-12 public schools serving Florida’s nearly 3 million students.

DeSantis' proposal would invest more direct cash payments to teachers and principals in the form of bonuses, increase per-student funding, and prioritize parental rights.

In a second round of cash payments directed by DeSantis, the budget would allocate $238 million for one-time $1,000 bonus checks for Florida’s 179,000 teachers and principals. It also would increase teacher pay through an allocation of $600 million, a $50 million increase from last year, with a goal to reach a minimum teacher salary of $47,500.

The budget plan would provide an increase in per-student funding to $8,000 per student, the highest amount of per-student funding in Florida’s history.

While California’s cost-per-student is more than $20,000, and students are being subjected to severe COVID-19 restrictions including requiring a COVID-19 vaccine to attend in-person classes, children in Florida remain free from such restrictions and mandates.

On the issues of COVID-19 shots and facial coverings, DeSantis said, “Let the parents make the decision that’s best for their kids.”

In November, the Florida governor called a special legislative session to ban mask and vaccine mandates. The legislature passed bills that DeSantis signed into law banning both as part of Florida’s “freedom agenda.” Florida also sued the Biden administration over COVID-19 vaccine mandates and forced the U.S. Department of Education to drop its efforts to require Florida schools to impose facial covering requirements on students.

Despite Florida spending less than half of what California spends per student, Florida’s K-12 students ranked third in the country for achievements in Education Week’s latest Quality Counts report, far above California students who consistently rank among the bottom in education outcomes. And while schools nationwide were reporting failing grades in 2020 and dropped in their rankings, Florida’s ranking improved from 2019 and received its highest score in the history of the ranking.

“Florida’s hardworking teachers and families have endured much through our response and recovery and we have them to thank for continuing to keep our students on track, learning and growing,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said of the ranking. He’s argued that implementing Florida’s B.E.S.T. standards, early learning and literacy initiatives, and helping struggling schools and at-risk students will help close achievement gaps and enable Florida students to “become #1 in the nation.”

The budget also seeks to allocate $421 million for school safety and mental health initiatives. This includes $210 million for the Safe Schools Program, a proposed increase of $30 million from the previous year, and $140 million for mental health, a proposed $20 million increase from the previous year. It also would allocate $42 million for school hardening grants and $4 million for safety initiatives at Jewish Day Schools.

To fully eliminate the Florida Standards Assessment and replace it with progress monitoring, the budget proposes $15.5 million in recurring funding to provide schools with necessary monitoring tools.

“The governor’s decision to end the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) is a perfect opportunity to address the needs of struggling students in a real and impactful way,” Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said in a recent op-ed published by the Orlando Sentinel.

The budget also would prioritize early childhood education by allocating $1.4 billion to a range of programs, including more than $406 million for Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten, a high-quality, free education initiative that serves approximately 158,000 four- and five-year-olds.

Early childhood funding includes $72 million for the School Readiness Program, $100 million in federal funds to increase eligible early learning coalitions’ provider reimbursement rates, and $40 million for performance funding for all participating school readiness providers. This also includes $3.9 million to deliver high-quality School Readiness curriculum directly to parents so to help at-risk children.

The budget also would allocate $36.4 million to serve approximately 36,000 at-risk School Readiness eligible 4-year-olds through direct instructional support for reading, $10 million for early childhood teacher scholarships, and $1.8 million to connect children and families with resources related to early childhood development.

Spar argues the budget doesn’t do enough to retain veteran teachers. He told WCTV News that DeSantis “… clearly recognizes the value of experience. But when it comes to education, he’s basically saying let’s just raise the pay of beginning teachers at the expense of veteran teachers and other staff who work in our schools because he has no plan to increase the pay of those who work in our schools.”

He says the legislature must “increase pay and address pay inequities for teachers and staff in our public schools. It is insane to think that there are more than 20 rules and laws that dictate teacher pay, and it is plain wrong that a teacher with 20 to 30 years of experience is making less in salary than teachers with the same experience did 10 years ago. We cannot bonus our way to great teachers and staff; we must revise policies and make a real investment.”

When the legislature convenes early next year, it’s tasked with approving a budget, as well as authorizing a range of other initiatives, including DeSantis’ proposal to cut state gas and fuel taxes by $1 billion.