Education and Funding in Escambia County

I apologize to any readers outside of this area, but the following blog entry deals with the politics of Escambia County, and to a lesser extent to Florida politics in a more general way. I know that others do have similar problems in their counties and states, so you might be interested in this just a bit, but the focus is local.

My step-son James was a student at Tate High School in Escambia County, Florida before he passed away in September 2004. (His Deeds Keep Following Him). One of his greatest sources of pride and joy was his participation in the Tate Band. This was what took up his time and energy day in and day out. He had planned to try to go to college on a band scholarship. His motivation for everything else he did at school came through the passion he had for the band.

My wife, Jody, and I have continued to keep in touch with the Tate Marching Band (Showband of the South) and to support them as we can. We still get the newsletter, and the current edition reminds us that Escambia County Superintendent of Schools Jim Paul has proposed that the school day be cut from seven periods to six. I was already aware of this, and was considering writing something about it, but the band newsletter article motivated me to get the job done sooner. It is programs like band and sports, sometimes called extra-curricular activities, that will be most hit by the reduction in the school day.

But academics will be hit by this move as well in two ways:

  1. Directly through eliminating programs and classes, especially electives
  2. Indirectly through removing some of the balance in students’ lives and some of their motivations

The reason for this proposal is simple, and I have to sympathize with Superintendent Paul as he tries to solve the problems with which he has been presented. Escambia County teachers are much more poorly paid than those in neighboring counties (Unlikely group queries 6-period plan). If he is to improve teacher pay, the money will have to come from somewhere else. Right now, that “somewhere else” appears to be school buildings and the extra hour in the school day.

In the past, Escambia County voters have been very reluctant to approve taxes as additional support to our schools. Our primary funding comes from the sales tax, and is distributed by the state according to some mildly complext formulas. (You can get more information on how this works from Education News You Can Use (School Funding Data), provided by the Florida School Board Association.

Some facts you might want to notice there include these:

  • Florida ranks 29th in teacher salaries. We should note that Escambia County is not one of the highest paid counties in the state.
  • Florida ranks 49th in citizen spending on education.
  • Florida ranks 43rd in student : teacher ratio

So we are not spending an extraordinarily large amount of money on education in the state of Florida, in fact, we seem to be going backward. I recommend reviewing the following page from the National Education Association site, Good News about Public Schools in Florida. Look at the source studies as well to see where they got this information. There are obviously some good things going on, but there are also problems.

I’d rate declining spending on education as a problem. I stated my own views on the problem in a prior essay, Make Education a Priority. I know that the trend today amongst voters and politicians is to cut taxes and to cut spending, but I’m going to swim against the current on this particular point. There are things that can be cut and should be cut. The simple solution, and in my view the cowardly solution, is to cut spending and taxes across the board.

Let me illustrate. During our son James’s illness, we had to watch our spending. Since my wife and I were self-employed we had to make a decision as to some things that would be cut, and some things that wouldn’t. We quickly agreed that those things that were part of the process of generating income should not be cut. It didn’t take lengthy thought or discussion, because it’s too obvious. We needed to continue to generate income.

In government spending, the equivalent decision is the one between infrastructure spending and other items. If you cut on infrastructure spending you will pay for it over the long term. Notice in the items on the NEA page cited above that many of Florida’s school buildings are deteriorating. That’s an obvious issue of infrastructure spending. But I would argue that education as a whole is a matter of infrastructure spending. If we educate and motivate our kids we are contributing to the future economic power of our county and our state. We will be reducing the number of inmates for our prisons, and recipients for our welfare rolls. Both of these will make our economic condition better. Unfortunately we seem to prefer to put a bandaid on the cut, rather than avoiding the knife. We’re more willing to put people in jail than to prevent them from getting there in the first place.

Yes, I do believe education is a silver bullet. This means well-balanced education that motivates kids, instills community values in them, and prepares them for a productive life. Will simply making education available suffice? Absolutely not! We need to uphold high standards of discipline, academic accomplishment, and community involvement. I’m glad to see that Florida schools are cited for high standards. I hope we make them higher.

So what do we do?

Write to your school board members, school superintendents, and also your representatives in the state legislature. When you write, let them know specifically what you want to accomplish, and let them know you understand the cost and are willing to stand up and help with paying the bill as well. We can write the school superintendent as often as we want, and fill his files (or his wastebasket) with letters telling him how we want schools to stay open or the school day to be seven rather than six hours, but if he doesn’t somehow get the money, we may simply be urging him to accomplish the impossible.

My wife and I are going to write these officials–the school board member from our district, the superintendent, our representative and senator in Tallahassee, and our governor urging them to support education. We will tell them we aren’t interested in words. Practically every politician out there claims that education is a priority. But as I have told church leaders who are wringing their hands about the failure of church projects, you can tell the real priorities by looking at the spending and the personal presence of the people involved.

Politicians will try to claim they can provide the highest quality education without any additional taxes. They do that because that is the popular thing. The politician who tells you the truth–quality costs money–gets in trouble. You should ask them precisely from where the money is going to come and how they are going to make it work. And don’t be misled by those who believe simply putting money into the schools will solve the problem. We need adequate resources with accountability.

As citizens we need to be involved, and we need to be involved for the long term. We not only need to work for and vote for the candidate who promises to do more when running for office, we also need to be there to work for the finances and to defend the politician who has the courage to admit that the finances are necessary. We also need to be there for the politician who has the courage to increase accountability.

For those of you in Escambia County, use the following web site to find your school board member and contact information:

To look up contact information for your superintendent and school board members: Escambia County School District.

For Florida state senate: Find Your Legislators.

For the Florida House: Florida House of Representatives – Representatives.

Florida Governor (Jeb Bush): Contact Governor Bush.

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