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PBS digital learning project in Florida schools is budget casualty

The budget being cobbled together by Florida legislators will have hundreds of winners and losers, and one unexpected loser is the state's network of public television stations.

At the Senate's urging, lawmakers have rejected a second non-recurring state appropriation of $1 million to continue an online digital learning program for use by the state's 67 public school districts. It features a wide variety of educational content as well as PBS' signature programming, from Sesame Street to Ken Burns' long-form historical documentaries.

As Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek notes in this explainer, Florida was the first state to get access to a PBS site with extensive materials customized to its own academic standards. But the project drew the wrath of the Senate's chief education budget-writer, Republican Don Gaetz of Niceville, who criticized PBS for not charging a user fee to school districts. Offering the online curriculum for free, Gaetz said, means the state had to pay for it. (The $1 million was never in the House budget, said Gaetz's counterpart, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami).

"It's only valuable if it doesn't cost anything, is the message," Gaetz told the Times/Herald. "If yours is so valuable, why isn't anybody interested in paying any money for it?"

Gaetz, who put the money in the current year's budget, is a former elected county school superintendent and noted that he donates money to his local PBS station in Pensacola.

Janyth Righter, executive director of Florida's PBS station, says the $1 million is needed to align its programming assets to conform to Florida's educational standards.

Melinda (Lindy) Kennedy, a Tallahassee lobbyist for Florida's PBS stations, said the money also would pay the costs of licensing fees to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to "re-purpose" PBS program content for use in Florida schools. She said no money would be paid directly to the PBS stations.

Gaetz's district includes Bay County, and the lobbyist noted that Bay County Superintendent William Husfelt III is an advocate of the program: "They've just partnered up with us," she said, and the district's web site has a new link to the PBS curriculum. Kennedy said superintendents are "very, very concerned" about the loss of the licensing money next year.