States

An Unexpected ‘Education Governor’ and What’s Next for Florida

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 17, 2019 11 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a signing ceremony at the William J. Kirlew Junior Academy in Miami Gardens for a bill creating a new voucher program for thousands of students to attend private and religious schools.

When he was elected Florida’s governor last year, Ron DeSantis was famous for telling his daughter to “build the wall” out of toy blocks in a TV campaign ad, not for his track record on education issues. But to this point, the Republican former congressman has eagerly embraced policies that have helped make Florida a high-profile and controversial state for K-12 policy.

So far this year, DeSantis publicly and successfully pushed state lawmakers to create a new voucher program designed for middle-income families, telling them at one point to “send me a bill” to that effect. It’s intended to augment Florida’s landmark tax-credit-scholarship program. The new state-funded vouchers, called Family Empowerment Scholarships, are expected to be the subject of a lawsuit.

He signed off on the expansion of other avenues of school choice, including new funding for Gardiner Scholarships for students with special needs. He initiated a review of academic-content standards. And he approved new funding for computer science and workforce-apprenticeship programs.

DeSantis shows little sign of slowing down. For next year, he’s proposed a hike in the minimum salary for new teachers, to the tune of $603 million annually, and is looking to revamp the teacher-bonus-pay program. Early education and career-technical-education issues could also be on his radar.

His administration is eager for DeSantis to assume the mantle of past governors like fellow Republican Jeb Bush, who helped institute test-based accountability and a dramatic expansion of school choice, renowned—or infamous—in education policy circles. Earlier this month, to promote his proposal to increase new teachers’ salaries, the Florida education department called DeSantis “the next ‘education governor.’ ”

“There’s a general sense of surprise about how much attention that he has paid to K-12 education,” said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida who studies Florida politics. He added that members of Florida’s political scene “weren’t really sure if he would have a detailed policy agenda ... on things like education.”

Florida’s Footprint

The state’s polarizing status as either education’s shining star or stinking swamp, depending on people’s views on testing, choice, and labor policies, means Florida governors are never too far from major K-12 debates and decisions. Florida has the third-largest public school enrollment of any state at roughly 2.8 million students, and for roughly two decades, it has been a bellwether for debates about education policy and who should exercise control over K-12 decisions and systems.

Ryan Petty, a school safety advocate whose daughter Alaina was slain at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, highlighted the governor’s successful push to expand the state’s Guardian Program—a 2018 law allowing districts to arm some school staff—in order to specifically permit classroom teachers to carry guns, as an example of how engaged DeSantis has chosen to be.

“Governor DeSantis could have just let that play out. But he’s done more than that,” Petty said. “He has not lost the focus on this issue.”

Yet even DeSantis’ proposal to dramatically increase starting teachers’ pay is drawing some skepticism. Unions, for example, have said they want more details before fully supporting it. And more broadly, his political foes see DeSantis as the latest of Florida Republican leaders bent on undermining teachers’ unions and traditional public schools.

“There’s a lot of bad education policy that comes out of this state,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, the president of United Teachers of Dade, the union for the Miami-Dade County school district. “They have been steadily rolling out these right-wing policies. It’s a continuation of the good-old-boys club.”

Common Core and Choice

In response to questions from Education Week about his record, DeSantis’ office provided a statement that highlights two new grant programs he signed, one for teachers in computer science and one for career pathways; increased state funding for Gardiner Scholarships; and the $7,672 in state per-student aid for fiscal 2020, which ranks relatively low among states. His office said the funding increase amounts to $242 per student, although the base per-pupil-allocation boost for this fiscal year is much lower, at just $75, according to state data.

“Governor DeSantis implemented a bold education agenda focused on removing barriers to opportunity for families, regardless of race, income, background, and ZIP code. With the help of the legislature, the governor delivered on many issues,” his office said in the statement.

As a member of Congress, DeSantis backed legislation dealing with higher education accreditation and student loans. But he was not on the House education committee and did not otherwise make a big name for himself on K-12 issues. DeSantis served in Congress from 2013 to 2018.

Before taking office as governor, perhaps DeSantis’ most prominent foray into education politics was a simple clarion call on his 2018 campaign website: “Stop Common Core.” His pledge to nix the standards tapped into long-standing conservative opposition to the Common Core State Standards. In January, DeSantis signed an executive order requiring Florida to replace the common core with new standards; this process is ongoing.

Whether this was flashy but flimsy political posturing remains to be seen. The state revised the English/language arts and math standards in 2014 amid political pressure that ultimately left much of the common core in place. The current review might turn out to be not so different. Educators recently told the Orlando Sentinel they see little need to revise the current standards, and that they worry the possible revisions could lower expectations for students.

It’s unclear if DeSantis himself will continue to weigh in or simply applaud whatever the review produces.

Elsewhere, DeSantis as a candidate in 2018 pledged to back innovation in education “coupled with choice for families and public accountability.” He certainly made good on the choice part. The accountability piece is where critics say Florida falls down on the job.

The Family Empowerment Scholarships program was perhaps his biggest triumph and a resounding success for school choice advocates in Florida and around the country, although the University of Central Florida’s Jewett stressed that the legislature played a big role.

The new program extends scholarships to families with an income of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty threshold (with a priority for families with an income of 185 percent or less of the threshold, which is $25,750 for a family of four); to families with a student in public school the prior year; and to families with a child about to enter kindergarten. For the 2019-20 school year, there’s a cap of 18,000 students. Unlike other scholarships in the state that are supported by tax credits, it receives direct state aid.

“I think Governor DeSantis has shown incredible leadership on making sure families are empowered to pick schools that best meet their child’s educational needs,” said Patricia Levesque, the CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit group founded by ex-Gov. Jeb Bush that backs choice and test-based school accountability. “It was a new program that allowed even middle-class, middle-income families to participate in finding the school that’s the best fit for their child.”

But others have sounded the alarm. Writing in the Progressive, a news website, veteran Florida education activist Kathleen Oropeza warned that the shift of state tax revenue directly into a private school choice program would only aid unaccountable private schools.

“This is a dangerous co-mingling of the already thin dollars designated for Florida’s district public schools,” Oropeza wrote.

The teachers’ union’s Hernandez-Mats was even more blunt: “For a lot of the GOP, they see public education as a cash cow.”

Looking to 2020

One of the early signs that DeSantis would make education one of his touchstones was appointing Richard Corcoran, a former Florida House speaker, as the education commissioner, Levesque said. A Republican lawmaker, Corcoran was known for his extensive advocacy for charter schools and other forms of choice during his time in the legislature.

In discussions with people close to DeSantis, Levesque said, she’s heard his administration feels a certain responsibility—if not pressure—to maintain the strong performance of the state this year in areas such as Advanced Placement scores, where Florida ranked third in the nation in terms of success rate (scores of 3 or higher) in the most recent tally.

“There’s so much good news about where Florida has been headed that we need to keep the outcomes going up,” Levesque said. “He’s actually done what he campaigned on.”

Aside from his intention to address teacher pay next year, DeSantis and Corcoran have also expressed an interest in addressing the quality early-childhood education. Levesque cited a state statistic from last year that 42 percent of the children in the state-backed, voluntary pre-K program tested as not ready for kindergarten.

Earlier this year, DeSantis also signed an executive order to help Florida become number one in the nation in “workforce education” by 2030. That tracks with a Florida Chamber of Commerce call issued last year for 60 percent of Floridians to have a “high-value” postsecondary degree, training, or certificate by the same year.

All the same, Republicans aren’t necessarily eager to simply wave through whatever DeSantis wants—especially if it costs money.

Responding to the governor’s $603 million teacher-raise pitch, Florida Speaker of the House José R. Oliva said in a tweet that he would “vet” the proposal like any other.

Instead of praising the idea, Oliva nodded toward fiscal restraint: “My initial thought is one of gratitude for those who came before us and saw it fit to bind us and all future legislatures to a balanced budget.”

Jewett said there should be no expectation the legislature passes any sort of tax increase to pay for the idea. But, he added, the odds are good the state will pass some sort of pay increase eventually, given DeSantis’ quick adaptation to state politics.

“[Ex-Gov. Rick] Scott had a reputation of not being particularly engaged with the legislature; DeSantis has taken a different approach.”

Division and Promise

Regardless of how that teacher-pay plan works out, what will continue to motivate the coalition united against DeSantis, including labor unions and many Democrats in the state, is his expansion of the state’s school choice system.

As an example of what she said was the kind of unfairness condoned by the DeSantis administration, Hernandez-Mats of United Teachers of Dade pointed to how Corcoran’s wife, as the founder of a charter school, had benefited from a 2016 bill passed by the legislature during his time as speaker dealing with state funding for construction projects. (Corcoran has denied trying to help his wife, saying that bill addressed larger issues.)

What’s happening now, Hernandez-Mats said, reflects neglect of traditional public schools at a time when Florida’s per-pupil spending on K-12 languishes at fourth from the bottom on recent state rankings. Even the teacher-pay plan is suspect, she says, because among other potential problems, it wouldn’t consider cost-of-living differences between different regions.

“Teachers do not see him as an advocate of public schools,” Hernandez-Mats said.

The expansion of the 2018 Guardian Program, which lawmakers passed after the Parkland killings, to permit districts to arm teachers, also remains divisive. Roughly half the districts in Florida now participate. Petty, the school safety advocate, said the governor backed that expansion while others might have retreated: “It was a political risk. Amongst educators, it wasn’t necessarily a popular idea. But Parkland shows how important it is to stop the killing” as quickly as possible.

He also praised DeSantis’ swift decision in January to suspend Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel for his actions related to the Stoneman Douglas killings, although last month a special master reviewing that decision called for Israel to be reinstated.

Meanwhile, many educators in the state have excoriated DeSantis for his approach to school safety.

“We think it’s ridiculous,” Hernandez-Mats said. “What kind of Neanderthal would think that putting more guns in any kind of setting would decrease gun violence?”

Despite the ongoing political strife over education rooted in various issues, Jewett said that the governor, with his proposal to boost new-teacher pay, is giving himself an opening to address long-standing grievances of people and groups representing traditional public schools. Those constituencies, he noted, have felt neglected in recent years by top Florida policymakers.

In this way, he said, the governor might successfully please Florida’s muscular education advocacy movement rooted in the Jeb Bush era, while also working productively with the education establishment.

“I think he is starting to make his own way,” Jewett said. “It’s possible that DeSantis might stake out some ground there where he does both.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as Florida Governor Puts K-12 Agenda on Fast Forward

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