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House OKs raises for teachers, remains silent on specifics

House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Erik Fresen rolled out his $20.2 billion proposal for education spending on Wednesday, and won the support of Democrats and Republicans on the panel.

But some observers raised objections.

Supporters of the Florida Virtual School, for example, took issue with a proposed tweak to the way Florida calculates per-student funding. They argued the new model would cost the state's online school about $35 million in public money.

Lady Dhyana Ziegler, who sits on the FLVS Board of Trustees, called the proposal “a direct and scathing attack on Florida Virtual School funding and course offerings.”

Fresen conceded that the virtual school would receive less funding “per course.” But he insisted that the proposed budget would not hurt the school's bottom line.

"Nobody is a bigger fan of FLVS and virtual instruction than I am,” Fresen said. “I assure you, there is not a cut to FLVS direct funding in this budget.”

Meanwhile, FLVS supporters noted, the proposed budget would enable online education providers from outside of Florida to receive state education funds.

Fresen rejected claims that the policy was driven by campaign contributions from out-of-state education providers, and said it was intended to increase competition.

“For us to have a policy that limits out-of-state providers, in a virtual world that is supposed to be limitless, is counterintuitive,” he said.

A third controversial budget provision would increase the state-funded scholarships available for students attending some for-profit private colleges. Those students would now be elligible to receive the same amount as students attending non-profit private colleges.

Overall, the proposed House education budget includes a $1.3 billion increase in education funding. It sets aside $10.5 billion in general revenue for public schools, $1 billion for Florida’s colleges and $1 billion for early learning. It also restores a $300 million cut made to the state university system last year.

Fresen is recommending:

* Per-student funding for public schools be increased 6 percent to $394.86.

* Funding for classroom supplies be increased from $200 to $250 per teacher.

* The reward money for top-ranked or improving public schools be increased from $100 to $125 per student. 

The proposed education budget also sets aside $676 million for "optional district salary increases." But it does not specifically address the $2,500 across-the-board pay raises that Gov. Rick Scott would like to give teachers. Fresen said the House would recommend funding the increases, but that "the dollar amount and structure" were still TBD. 

Scott responded with a press release, saying: "This is a terrific step forward in our effort to ensure all Florida public classroom teachers get a $2,500 pay raise."

Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee gave Fresen high marks for his work.

“It’s definitely refreshing to be here not cutting anything from the budget,” Rep. Dwayne Taylor, a Daytona Beach Democrat.

Fresen will now take his recommendations to House Budget Chairman Seth McKeel, who will have to reach consensus with the Senate.