K-12 Funding a Top Issue in Heated Fla. Governor's Race
In the close Florida contest between incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic challenger and former Gov. Charlie Crist, each is attempting to outdo the other with pledges of greater financial support for schools battered by the recent recession.
But beyond that flood of common campaign rhetoric are deeper, long-term policy questions for the eventual winner about the proper recipients of state school aid, the growth of educational choice, and school accountability.
If elected, Mr. Crist—who governed the state as a Republican from 2007 to 2011 before switching parties—could find common ground with the legislature, which is expected to stay in GOP hands, on increasing state financial aid. But his Democratic allies, including his backers at the Florida Education Association, could be more interested in having him block Republican initiatives, after years of bitter political battles over teacher evaluations and school choice.
Meanwhile, a re-elected Gov. Scott would likely face significant pressure from his party's lawmakers to continue expanding the scope of school choice scholarships, virtual education, and other major policy shifts that took root under Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who left office in 2007. Mr. Bush remains an influential voice on state education policy through his leadership of the Foundation for Florida's Future and other policy work.
Although both candidates have indulged in heavy doses of negative rhetoric, some educators see the positives in a gubernatorial campaign that has put education at center stage and featured points of consensus on certain issues, such as funding.
Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of the 345,000-student Miami-Dade County school district, said "the political debate has elevated education" in part simply due to the amount of time the candidates have spent on it.
"Stability of good policy is important," Mr. Carvalho said in a phone interview. "Stability of education funding is important, particularly in a state like Florida, where I think the recession hit us a little bit harder than other states."
Voters hold unfavorable views of both Gov. Scott, who was elected in 2010, and Mr. Crist, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, which showed Gov. Scott with a slight lead. (Subsequent polling by SurveyUSA has given Mr. Crist the edge.)But the public also appears uneasy about the status quo of K-12 education in Florida.
The results of a separate statewide survey released last month by the University of South Florida, in Tampa, show that the share of respondents who view their local public schools favorably slipped from 54 percent in 2012 to 48 percent this year. Only 9 percent of the respondents said they thought Florida schools were "very successful" at preparing students for life after high school.
"There's no great feeling that Florida is turning out highly competitive students," said Susan MacManus, a professor of government at the university who directed the poll.
School funding has been a top issue for both candidates.
Mr. Crist has zeroed in on Gov. Scott's first proposed budget for fiscal 2011, in which Mr. Scott floated a $3.3 billion state funding cut to K-12. The legislature eventually pared it down to a $1.3 billion cut in the final budget, which was $16.6 billion for public schools.
In a July interview with a Florida TV station, Mr. Crist pledged to attempt to set a new record for per-pupil spending. The current level is $6,937, and the record was set under then-Gov. Crist in fiscal 2008, when it reached $7,126 before falling under both him and Gov. Scott.
"I spent more on per-pupil spending than Rick Scott ever has," Mr. Crist said. "I did it in the Great Recession. Context is important here." (The national recession officially started in December 2007, after Mr. Crist signed the fiscal 2008 budget.)
Waiting for Mr. Crist at a campaign event outside Orlando last month, Democratic state Sen. Darren Soto said Gov. Scott signed the biggest budget in Florida history for fiscal 2015, $77 billion, yet failed to top the per-student spending mark set under Mr. Crist.
"I believe that Crist would make education funding the prime priority," Rep. Soto said.
Beating the Record
Gov. Scott has tried to cover his flank, however, on the issue of school funding. He highlights the fact that in the last three budgets he signed, total state spending on public schools went up. He also pledged that if he wins a second term, he will push for per-student spending of $7,176, above the 2007-08 mark approved by then-Gov. Crist.
The Republican has made a point of noting how Florida school spending plummeted under then-Gov. Crist after reaching that record high early in his term. Mr. Scott said in a statement that "school districts will have more resources to provide Florida children the best education possible." He also approved $480 million in state funds in fiscal 2014 for teacher pay raises, although districts had final authority over the extent to which teachers received them.
State Rep. Erik Fresen, a Republican and the chairman of the Florida House K-12 subcommittee on appropriations, said he supports a bigger per-student aid figure for schools. But Gov. Scott's focus on districts doesn't touch on a major shift Rep. Fresen and other Republicans have in mind: the direct state funding of individual schools.
Under such a system, principals would have the power to direct, and be held accountable for, how state dollars were used in their schools, Mr. Fresen said. That policy, he said, would help regular public schools act more like charter schools and strengthen real local control by empowering individual schools, not politicized local boards.
"Governor Scott and I have had many conversations about changing the funding system to a school-site-based system from a district-based system," Mr. Fresen said in an interview. There is "no reform that will more fundamentally change the system" in Florida education than direct school funding, he said.
GOP lawmakers have other broad ambitions. State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the vice chairman of the K-12 subcommittee of the Florida House, said he envisions a time when the amount of money made available for private school tuition by the state through tax-credit scholarships is no longer capped. (For the 2014-15 school year, the cap on the program is $357 million.) Both he and Rep. Fresen referred to how Louisiana's Course Choice program and its state-run Recovery School District could serve as models for future policy changes in Florida.
"We break up this idea of a monopoly where there's a group of experts who say they know how to do everything," Rep. Diaz said. "We've got a long way to go."
The extent to which Gov. Scott, in a second term, would play an important role in such policy shifts, including whether to place more oversight on them, is an open question.
"Across the board, he's made a commitment to staying on board," Rep. Diaz said of Gov. Scott. "Now he's not Jeb Bush ... he doesn't have that kind of grasp on education policy. But Charlie Crist doesn't, either."
Among Democrats, most of the focus may be on initiatives pushed by Republican lawmakers that their candidate would stop.
"Having a governor who has a veto pen will stop things from getting worse," said Fedrick Ingram, the president of United Teachers of Dade, the teachers' union for the Miami-Dade County schools that is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
As governor in 2010, Mr. Crist vetoed a bill to tie half of teacher evaluations to student test scores and change how teachers are paid. But that legislation was the first bill Gov. Scott signed when he took office in 2011, and it has stood up to a subsequent legal challenge by the state teachers' union in court.
Also illustrating the political challenges for Mr. Crist is the state union's lawsuit seeking to stop an expansion of the Florida tax-credit-scholarship program's income-eligibility limits, which Gov. Scott approved earlier this year. Mr. Crist signed an expansion of the tax-credit scholarship program while governor, but is refusing to attack the FEA's suit against the most recent expansion.
On the whole, both Mr. Scott and Mr. Crist have signaled support for the shift to the Common Core State Standards and aligned tests, although the incumbent has stressed that Florida has its own unique standards, while the Democratic challenger has expressed general concerns about the role of testing.
But ongoing state-level angst over testing has taken on a life of its own: Late last month, a group of 11 Florida school boards approved a motion calling on the state to suspend high-stakes testing. That followed an August vote by the Lee County school board not to administer any state assessments (a vote that was soon reversed).
Principal Bridget McKinney of Miami's Allapattah Middle School—whose school has received a D or an F in the past four years under the state's A-F grading system for schools—said the fact that those grades don't come with any consequences this school year doesn't matter to parents, who rely on the grades to judge her school. Many parents, she stressed, also are unaware of the shift to new common-core-aligned exams. (Florida is using common-core tests developed by the American Institutes for Research.)
"Parents don't even remotely understand the impact of these exams," she said in an interview at Allapattah.
So far this school year, Ms. McKinney said, her students have struggled with the format of the upcoming assessments, apart from the content and level of rigor of the standards. She had hoped to buy supplemental common-core instructional materials this year for all of her students—95 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price school meals—only to discover that such a purchase would have eaten up more than half of her $27,000 Title I budget for the benefit of disadvantaged students.
Amid a contentious political campaign, her message on the common-core testing question is simple: "Roll out something so that kids will be able to do it."
Vol. 34, Issue 08, Pages 1, 21Published in Print: October 15, 2014, as Sunshine State Showdown on K-12