Shannon Nickinson: Make sure schools measure up as a top Florida feature

Public education consumes almost 30 percent of Florida’s budget.

So what are taxpayers getting for that investment, which this is year about $22.9 billion, compared to other states?

Florida TaxWatch, a government watchdog think tank that evaluates government spending, has created its own guide to help answer that question: How Florida Compares – Education.

The report looks at both PreK-12 and higher education. The data comes from the National Center for Education Statistics.  It follows 28 measurements: from enrollment to student-teacher ratio (something Florida regulates by constitutional amendment), fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading proficiency to degrees conferred; average teacher salary to average in-state tuition and fees.

Two of TaxWatch’s metrics – free or reduced-price lunch eligibility and percentage of adults 25 and older with bachelor’s degrees – also are metrics in the Studer Community Institute’s Pensacola Metro Dashboard.  Those 16 metrics were developed with the University of West Florida to measure the economic, educational and social well-being and quality of life in the Pensacola metro area.

According to TaxWatch, how does Florida stack up?

• 31st in percentage of adults 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree at 17.1 percent based on 2012 data. In 2013 in the Pensacola area, 16.1 percent of adults had a bachelor’s degree – putting us between 38th place Michigan and 39th place Ohio.

• 10th place in the nation with 58.6 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, based on 2012-2013 school year data. For this school year, the SCI dashboard data shows 56 percent of children in the Pensacola metro eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school. In Escambia County, it’s a whopping 63.5 percent.

On TaxWatch’s list, 63.5 percent earns us fourth place, right behind Louisiana.

The average teacher’s salary in Florida is $46,691, ranking us 45th in the nation. That’s a full $10,000 below the national average.

Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch said in a news release that the group’s guide “helps taxpayers and policymakers understand the return on their investment in Florida’s public education systems.”

• While Florida fourth-graders rank near the top of the nation in reading proficiency (12th), the ranking plummets for Florida eighth-graders (31st). Students show lesser achievement in math proficiency, with fourth- and eighth-graders ranking 27th and 35th respectively.

So it would seem that whatever we’re doing in elementary school in terms of teaching reading is working better than what we’re doing in middle school.

• Higher education remains one of the best bargains in the country. Only one state offers lower in-state tuition and fees to attend four-year colleges and universities, and only seven states offer lower costs at two-year institutions.

Florida post-secondary institutions have conferred the third-highest number of bachelor’s degrees in the nation, yet Florida ranks 31st in the nation for the percentage of adults older than 25 with a bachelor’s degree.

So it would seem we’re making a good investment in making higher education accessible, but we’re not reaping the benefits in terms of higher wages as a result.

Dealing with that issue is particularly important for the Pensacola area. Our economic development people are always hustling, pitching our quality of life  where thousands live the way millions wish they could.

In recruiting all of those people who could work anywhere, we offer sunshine, a relatively low cost of living, and no state income tax.

Those young professionals like vibrant downtowns with lots of things to do and walkable neighborhoods with character. And we’re well on our way to building that.

When those young professionals become parents, they’ll want a good school system for their children.

To make the momentum Pensacola has generated sustainable, we need to make sure our schools are a selling point.

Shannon Nickinson is the editor of, a news and commentary website in Pensacola, Florida. Follow her on Twitter Column courtesy of Context Florida.  

Bill Prescott


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