Don't discount education

Business leaders realize public schools will provide the bulk of this region’s future work force.

There isn’t much to do when you sit in the jury room at the county courthouse.

While you wait for your name to be called, so you can sit in another room and wait, you scan the room and look for a familiar face, someone to pass the time with.

The last time I was called for jury duty, I was lucky enough to find a former state legislative leader I had covered while working the state capital and politics beat for South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper.

He had a toddler at the time and we started talking about the state of public education. Education has always been one of my interests, personally and professionally, especially recognizing that without a well-educated work force the state is crippling its hopes for economic development and the growth of businesses that will provide the high-wage jobs we all want to see in Northwest Florida.

In my newspaper days, I was among the few Capitol reporters who actually tried to understand the public school funding formula and follow the tinkering that legislators did with it each year to somehow boost education funding — or at least make it look like they did. For me, it was important to tell my readers exactly what the state was going to do for their child’s school, including whether the classrooms would be more crowded next year or more portables might have to go up on the playground.

This legislative leader had always been an advocate for public schools, so I asked him what elementary school his home was zoned for. Imagine my surprise when he proceeded to talk about sending his daughter to private school.

But, in the spirit of full disclosure, you should know that I also served as president of parent-teacher organizations at my daughter Vicky’s elementary, middle (two years) and high school (two years). We raised as much money as we could — one year about $25,000 — to help teachers offset classroom costs they had been personally shouldering for years and to help out needy students, including one time paying for installation of a power pole and electric hook-up for a family that had no electricity. I always felt it was in my family’s best interest to help public schools because that’s where my daughter was getting an education and I wanted to make sure she had a bright educational and economic future.

This legislative leader had always been an advocate for public schools, so I asked him what elementary school his home was zoned for. Imagine my surprise when he proceeded to talk about sending his daughter to private school.

Over the years, I’ve written endless stories about the governor and Cabinet, who make education policy as the state Board of Education, and the House and Senate committees that handle public school policy and funding. Some of those stories touched on how many of them had school-aged children and where they attended school. It was interesting to find that many were not enrolled in or hadn’t gone to public school. But it was sad to realize that the schools were missing out on the benefit of having so many powerful — and vested — voices.

As he begins his first year in office, Gov. Rick Scott wants to eliminate the property tax that counties now levy to help pay for public schools. But no one is yet sure how the anemic state coffers would be able to bridge that budget gap.

Legislative leaders have indicated cuts in education are probably inevitable during the upcoming spring legislative session — especially since federal stimulus dollars used to boost school spending last year will not be available in this budget go-around. Education Commissioner Eric Smith was recently told that a budget scenario his staff is working on to cut another 15 percent from the public schools budget is a starting point.

Business leaders realize public schools will provide the bulk of this region’s future work force. So it is incumbent on them to know what is going on in the legislative arena, especially when what the Legislature does can ultimately have a dramatic effect on their company’s future.

In this issue, we have provided you a list of Northwest Florida’s legislative delegation. We have told you what committees they serve on and how to reach them via phone. You can access their mailing and e-mail addresses through the legislative website, Online Sunshine, at leg.state.fl.us, which has information on bills, including an analysis of each bill filed, and the budget.

While business people tend to focus on taxes and regulation during the legislative session it might be in your best business interest to pay attention to education issues, not just at the public school level but with the universities and colleges as well. Your future depends on it.

Categories: Opinion