For Florida Community Colleges, Who Should Pay?

Officials debate whether proposal to allow local taxes will provide needed funds or just favor wealthier districts while letting the state off the hook.
September 19, 2008

Remember the theory that community college should be supported by states, localities and tuition? In Florida, it's strictly a theory, as counties don't provide any financial support. In a move that is dividing community colleges in the state, a proposal on the fall ballot for a constitutional amendment would give counties the authority to levy a local-option sales tax to supplement state funding for their community college.

Currently, Florida community colleges are funded entirely by the state in addition to student tuition and fees. Some support the amendment, which would pave the way for an additional funding source to compensate for a strained state budget. Others, however, worry it will shift the burden of community college funding to local authorities and create inequities among institutions as a result of the disparate economies of Florida’s urban and rural counties. (Many of Florida's community colleges are known as leaders in the movement to offer four-year degrees and to drop "community" from their names, but these institutions are equally involved and would be equally affected by this shift.)

If the amendment passes – it needs 60 percent of the vote – counties would need voter approval in order to levy the sales tax. Additionally, any tax approved would require voter extension within five years. Supporters of the amendment, which include officials from more populous counties such as Miami-Dade, emphasize that it only provides the language for a possible tax and gives voters the opportunity to deny any proposed local-option sales tax. Additionally, they argue that voters know what programs and education are needed for their community and should have the ability to additionally support their open-access institutions as they see fit.

“The state funds K-12 first, then four-year universities and then community colleges,” said Victoria Hernandez, director of governmental affairs at Miami-Dade College, which supports the amendment. “We get shortchanged. If we make this change in the constitution, we know there are any number of community colleges who might want to do this. It’s not an imposition or a mandate. Funding is tight, and this is an option we want to embrace.”

As of 2006-2007, the last full year for which data is available from the state, Florida community colleges received about 53 percent of their revenue from the state, almost 21 percent from student fees and the remainder from federal support, sales and lottery funds.

The proposed amendment, drafted by the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, will appear on the ballot this November after repeated attempts by Miami-Dade College to secure the ability to ask voters for a local tax levy from the state legislature. Last year, twin House of Representatives and Senate bills died in committee that, if approved, would have given specific Florida counties the option to leverage the community college tax proposed by this amendment.

As Miami-Dade is such a populous county, it is served by its own community college district. Some other community college districts, however, serve multiple less-populous counties. If this amendment passes, a tax levy would require the approval of all counties served by a district, said Ed Massey, chairman of the state’s Council of Community College Presidents. Though he said the council ultimately supports the amendment, he noted there is some concern about the potentially rough road to tax approval in multi-county districts.

Massey, who also serves as the president of the four-county-serving Indian River State College, said it would be difficult for a tax levy to pass in his district because of an urban-rural split. His district serves the populous and wealthier coastal counties of Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie in addition to the rural agricultural county of Okeechobee, whose median household income is $9,000 less than the state average. If it were proposing a tax levy to voters, Massey said, his college would have to convince voters in Okeechobee County that they were being served in a manner equitable to that of the coastal counties. It is hard, he said, for voters to approve a referendum that does not benefit their county.

Though it is finally being brought to a state-wide vote for the first time, the notion of local funding for community colleges in Florida is not new. It was at least talked about in the late 1980s, said Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Katsinas, who worked at Miami-Dade College at the time, said one justification for it was that the housing costs were higher in his county than throughout the Florida Panhandle.

James L. Wattenbarger, often cited as the “father of Florida’s community college system,” believed it was the state’s responsibility to fund its open-access institutions when outlining a master plan for the system in the 1950s, Katsinas said. Additionally, Katsinas noted that Wattenbarger was concerned about the difference between high and low tax districts in addition to his firm belief that property taxes should not be used to fund education.

Florida’s community college funding formula, which currently cannot make use of local tax dollars, was initially constructed as a means of equalization for all of its institutions, said Linda Hagedorn, director of the Research Institute for Studies in Education at Iowa State University. Describing Florida as a “poor state besieged by some deep pockets of poverty,” she added that the state is now under considerable budgetary pressures and is seeking money anywhere it can get it.

“In terms of looking at local taxes and local wealth, the state would have an unequal distribution of that wealth,” Hagedorn said. “It turns into a situation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In that sense, Florida made a wise decision in not using local taxes and using the equalized approach. Now, Florida is trying to take steps to correct and alleviate student funding issues. It is following in the step of states that have tried a tiered approach to funding.”

The consideration to allow local funding comes at a time when community college enrollments are booming, partly because of the recent downturn in the economy. Some say these increasing numbers explain why new sources of revenue are being sought. Nationally, between 2000-2001 and 2005-2006, community college enrollments have grown by 30 percent, Katsinas said, adding that data are highest in selected fast-growth states like Florida. In Florida, that growth equates to around 43,000 students – almost the equivalent of adding another large community college district the size of Miami-Dade.

“Numerically, the growth is as great as any time during the baby boom of the 1960s,” Katsinas said. “State revenue models are not keeping pace. They are challenging the ability of states to keep the door open.”

Though the proposed amendment would supplement and not supplant state funding for community colleges in the state, Florida is already considering revamping its funding formula, according to a new report by the Community College Budget Office. There are already concerns about the equity of the state’s funding formula in Florida, said Christopher Mullin, post-doctoral fellow at the Illinois Education Research Council. He added that a local-option tax could further complicate this debate between the rural and urban community colleges, some of which are now pushing to offer more four-year degrees.

“There’s always a tension because larger counties will always get more money,” said Mullin, who wrote his dissertation at the University of Florida on the typology of state funding. “It’s going to cause inequities of what people can provide. Can they get those people who don’t have a lot of money in the first place to approve a tax? I don’t think it’s going to be easy to do. Also, if they don’t take [local appropriations] and fold them into the funding formulas, do they deduct from what the state gives?”

Answers to his questions are unclear at this juncture. Mullin, however, argues that the current funding debate in Florida is a sign of the deterioration of its system for supporting community colleges. The state, he said, is slowly shifting to a tripartite system much like that of California -- which consists of a community college, state university and research university system. As larger community colleges in Florida seek to offer more four-year degrees and seek to gather local funding through this amendment, Mullin said he sees these institutions becoming regional centers, rendering the remaining community colleges “third class institutions.”


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