Students at Hillsborough High School wait in line to have temperature checked before entering the building on August 31, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. | Octavio Jones/Getty Images
TALLAHASSEE — Florida Republicans reject President Joe Biden’s policies but sure like to spend his money.
The GOP-led state Legislature was facing an education budget crisis at the start of the 2021 legislative session in March, with lawmakers seriously considering slashing K-12 budgets and increasing tuition at Florida’s public universities. In all, Florida had a nearly $3 billion budget shortfall.
But the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package changed Florida’s dire budget situation and helped the state’s biggest-name Republicans achieve their personal policy goals. Although some state GOP lawmakers claimed the federal relief wasn’t needed, Florida legislators allocated at least $7.4 billion from Biden’s rescue plan to go to K-12 schools next year and beyond. Lawmakers are also using $2.2 billion that Congress approved in 2020 under former President Donald Trump to help provide education money.
The Biden stimulus funds ended up paying for education pet projects of Gov. Ron DeSantis and top state lawmakers like GOP House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) — including a $200 million book deliver program. But some Republicans are still grumbling about accepting the money.
“I wish they’d never done it,” state Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay), the House’s education budget writer, said of Congress passing Biden’s American Rescue Plan. “But you can’t penalize Florida for the stupid decision of Joe Biden.”
The federal funds left many Republicans in an awkward position: condemn the Biden administration’s spending but also use the cash to keep Florida’s schools afloat and pay for their education priorities. State lawmakers and DeSantis also set up conflicts with their fellow Republicans, including Sen. Rick Scott, who demanded in March that states return billions of dollars in federal Covid relief money. DeSantis rejected that call, saying at the time that it “doesn’t make any sense.”
The Legislature allocated $215.7 million of Biden’s stimulus funds to pay $1,000 bonuses for 180,000 teachers and 3,600 principals — a top DeSantis priority. The governor called the bonuses “a token of appreciation” to educators who were crucial to reopening schools and leading in-person classes during the pandemic, and has frequently touted the move.
“A lot of people thought a year ago we were going to have a massive shortfall, that you’re going to have to slash education and all this other stuff,” DeSantis said at a recent bill signing. “In fact, we were able to meet the needs.”
He notably did not mention the Biden administration.
Federal money also fueled some of Sprowls’ projects. As part of his plan to focus resources on the state’s youngest learners, Sprowls pushed the Legislature to use $125 million in federal funds to pay for a $200 million program to send books to the homes of hundreds of thousands of students in Florida to bolster literacy rates. It’s the first time in the state’s history that such a program will be deployed.
“A lot of my conservative friends… are concerned with [what] the long-term economic drag that coughing up that much money to the states could possibly be,” said House co-minority leader Evan Jenne (D-Dania Beach). “But when it comes to the rubber really meeting the road, a lot of that fades away because we do have priorities.”
Other GOP-led states, such as Tennessee, have also claimed their states “didn’t need” federal cash from Biden’s stimulus — but are still set to use it. Texas, meanwhile, is mulling a plan that would require schools to stash some 40 percent of their federal dollars in reserves, a proposal that has frustrated local education leaders who fear the move could signal a break from federal guidelines and set up future budget cuts.
The bulk of Florida’s federal stimulus dollars — $6.8 billion — will be placed in the state Department of Education reserves. School districts must submit blueprints to the agency requesting the funds, consistent with how the first tranches of federal relief were awarded in the state.
Lawmakers set aside $46.1 million specifically to help identify children experiencing homelessness and provide additional services like counseling in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Legislators also approved spending $210 million on K-12 construction projects.
Some House Democrats raised questions about giving the money to the Florida Department of Education instead of straight to school districts, yet the state education budget eventually received bipartisan support. Even Sprowls’ book delivery program had support from Democrats.
“You’ll never hear me knock anything that’s going to get more children to have a love of reading,” Jenne said.
But it’s not just Biden’s stimulus that’s helping the state. Florida’s budget uses federal dollars from the 2020 Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund to install a new program for monitoring students’ progress in the classroom and to carry out long sought overhauls for the state’s “broken” pre-kindergarten accountability system. The measures cost $22 million combined.
Additionally, Florida schools have nearly $1.2 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief dollars at their disposal, including some $847.7 million the Department of Education wants spent by Sept. 1. The state budget dedicated $561 million from ESSER for “academic acceleration” and $140 million for technology assistance.
This money is expected to be crucial for school districts in the years to come as they address the educational fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Schools have a range of needs to tackle that have only been amplified by Covid-19, like student mental health and the achievement gap.
As of now, DeSantis still must sign off on the majority of Florida’s education spending plan.
Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) predicted after the legislative session in April that the governor would be “fair” with his veto pen. Simpson defended the budget crafted by lawmakers in 2021, telling reporters it was packed full of “dynamic” one-time projects that the federal stimulus dollars “clearly” helped accomplish.
Or as Fine puts it, the Legislature made lemonade from “inflation and federal debt.”
“We will pay a price for all this deficit spending,” Fine said in an interview. “It’s a real shame that, in the name of helping children, Joe Biden and Washington Democrats decided to mortgage their futures.”
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