richardmcculloch2web.gifTimes are hard all over. The signs are everywhere; literally. From the signs at  local gas stations that display fluctuating fuel prices that seem to hover just slightly lower than $4 per gallon (if you’re lucky), to the real estate signs that dot our neighborhoods announcing short sales and bank foreclosures, financial hardships and challenges represent the unavoidable signs of the times that affect us all.

Though economic woes are certainly a national concern, it is the response by Florida legislators to the economic condition of the Sunshine State that has me concerned.

On Friday, May 2, 2008 our state lawmakers gave their blessings and approvals to a $66.2 billion state budget which will theoretically cut state spending by $5 billion.

Though the current fiscal health of the state may be characterized as desperate, and in desperate times you counter with desperate measures, in the case of this budget those desperate measures have yielded a casualty that we certainly cannot afford: education.

I would hope that even in the midst of a sagging economy, and the partisan bickering that is an unfortunate mainstay of state and national government, that somewhere there dwells a universal appreciation for the importance of education.

Unfortunately, given the $332 million in cuts to K-12 classroom spending in Florida schools that represent part of the 2008-2009 state budget, it seems that once again our students and educators are acceptable collateral damage in the war on our depressed economy.

Just some other food for thought: Of that $332 million cut from Florida schools, Broward and Miami-Dade counties will shoulder one-third of that burden.

Yes, that’s right; the same Broward County whose pass rate for the 2007 10th grade FCAT was 53 percent and the same Miami-Dade County whose pass rate for the same exam was 44 percent.

Ironically, under the new budget, there was one faction of state government that received a significant increase in funding: Florida’s prisons.

Under this approved budget, $305 million was allocated to build three new facilities. This correctional construction seems to be a state priority given the projected swelling of the prison population to 107,000 by the end of June 2009.

What amazes me is the self-fulfilling prophecy that has been cultivated in making these budgetary decisions. In essence, the subliminal message sent to us by the good folks up in
Tallahassee is that “we’re going to cut funds to education, but don’t worry…we’ll have plenty of jail space for the kids that we let down in the classroom.”

Since I regard our elected officials as reasonably intelligent individuals, each with access to the same, if not more, of the resources available to me, it seems that the strategy of cutting education while supplementing prison funding is based on their knowledge of the facts of incarceration.

Clearly they know that the Department of Justice reports that the “typical offender is undereducated, unemployed and living in poverty before incarceration.”

In addition, I am sure that at least one of the illustrious crafters of this budget kept in mind that, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics captured throughout the late 1990s, three-quarters of state prison inmates throughout the nation did not earn a high school diploma prior to incarceration.

What troubles me, and should trouble all of us who call Florida home, is that this budget plan suggests surrender to the reality of failing schools, and a concession to the prospect of a continuing increase in crime and incarceration.

Budget cuts are a necessary evil in this challenging economy, but what long-term benefits do we offer future generations when we compromise the very education that will one day enable them to be productive contributors to our economy?

Contrary to the philosophy of “no child left behind,” when we are counting state dollars, clearly it is the children and youth of Florida who are effectually being counted out.

Richard McCulloch •