Democrats putting education “front and center” in legislative campaignsby John Kennedy | October 3rd, 2012
Florida’s ruling Republicans are undermining their own pledge to boost the state’s economy by shifting millions of dollars away from public education, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and state Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said Wednesday.
Flanked by a dozen university students, Graham and Smith expanded on what has become a steady campaign theme this fall for Democrats in state House and Senate races across the state.
Graham, who also served as Florida governor from 1979-87, said Republicans have come close to reversing the state’s longstanding commitment to universities, which in his time had taxpayers covering 75 percent of college costs and students paying 25 percent.
“We can’t continue down this course if we aspire to be a state where young people want to plant their personal flags,” Graham said.
The Legislature cut university spending $300 million this year, while restoring $1 billion to public schools which had shouldered a $1.3 billion reduction in 2011. Tuition was increased between 9 percent and 15 percent at the state’s 11 universities, in the latest round of several years of steep hikes.
Florida Republicans have defended the actions. Lawmakers have had to deal with multibillion dollar budget shortfalls since the recession hardened in 2007. With analysts predicting a slight surplus next year, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has lately joined the chorus calling for more dollars for schools.
But with the federal government also reducing financial aid programs, Graham concluded, “At all levels, higher education is under assault.”
Graham and Smith said the budget cuts, combined with a slow economy, are making it increasingly difficult for Florida students to attend state universities. Meanwhile, students attending Wednesday’s news conference with the Democratic leaders also told of struggling to enroll in the classes they needed, or being forced to attend school for an additional academic year because of budget cuts.
“We have demonstrably devalued education in this state,” Smith said.
Smith said Democratic candidates in legislative races have made the difficulties families face with education a central part of their campaign pitch.
“In almost every one of our House races and in the Senate races we are involved in, you’re hearing about education again,” Smith said. “It is front and center, because families in Florida, when they sit down at the breakfast table, are worried about not only jobs for themselves, but jobs for their children and grandchildren.”
While Graham decried rising student costs, he is expected to be in attendance Thursday at the Florida Supreme Court for a case he started and which critics say could spur tuition rates even higher. Graham is the lead party in a 2007 lawsuit over whether the State University System Board of Governors — or the Legislature — is empowered to set tuition.
Lower courts have ruled against Graham, whose side says a 2002 constitutional amendment makes it clear that it is solely the board’s responsibility to set tuition rates.
Under current law, the Legislature has authority to set tuition increases, and universities can add an additional increase so long as the total tuition increase year-over-year does not exceed 15 percent.