As Rick Scott highlights schools, Democrats point to funding cuts

By on September 14, 2012

With Gov. Rick Scott visiting several public schools this week and highlighting what he says is his understanding that Floridians want good schools and his intention to do something about it, Democrats teed off Thursday on the GOP education funding record, reports David Royse of the News Service of Florida.

Several Democrats in the Legislature, Democratic legislative candidates and the party itself have put out critical statements in recent days, trying to counter Scott’s message that he plans to make education a top priority in the coming year.

Republicans in the Legislature, at Scott’s request, increased the amount of money for public schools in this year’s budget by about $1 billion, but that followed a cut of roughly the same amount the year before, in essence restoring the money taken away earlier.

But Democrats have noted that education spending for K-12 public schools has generally been on a downward trend up until this year’s boost.

“When Republicans like Rick Scott say they care about education — but gut the funding for schools causing thousands of teachers to be laid off — it’s hard to trust them with Florida’s future,” Jose Javier Rodriguez, who is running for a South Florida House seat, said in a statement sent out Thursday.

Most big Florida school districts didn’t have major teacher layoffs last year, according to a survey by the National Council on Teacher Quality. Nearly 9 percent of the teaching workforce was laid off in Broward County and Brevard County laid off about 7 percent of its teachers, but most districts avoided major workforce reductions.

Still, there’s no question that overall state funding for schools has gone down over the last five years, even more so as the economy has tanked. And several Democrats are hitting Republicans on that issue. Some, including elementary school teacher Karen Castor Dentel, who is running for a suburban Orlando House seat, have hit the education issue hard in ads. Dentel is challenging Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, in House District 30.

“It’s sad that politicians like Rick Scott and Scott Plakon have chosen to gut this vital investment – draining millions of dollars from local public schools while handing out tax breaks to special interests,” Dentel said in a statement this week.

Republicans have in recent years focused more of their education policy agenda on issues not completely related to spending. The GOP has pushed through a controversial measure to end the practice of basing teacher pay on tenure, and shifting it to merit pay. There has also been a lot of interest in the GOP ranks in strengthening school choice, which many Republicans say simply makes sense as a way to ensure that parents can get their children the education they want, but is sometimes criticized by others as a way of bailing out on public schools.

After years during which private school vouchers, particularly for poor children, as an alternative were in vogue, much of the GOP focus has shifted to a burgeoning charter school movement.

Incoming Republican Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville, a former school superintendent and school board member, said funding shouldn’t be the main issue when discussing education anyway, dismissing the central element of the Democratic criticism.

“I can attest that more money does not always equal better student performance,” Gaetz said in an interview. “It depends on how that money is deployed.” The schools budget isn’t likely to go up this year, either, he noted.

Any extra money expected to come in as a result of rising tax collections is “a footnote” when compared to the budget as a whole, Gaetz said. “There is no new money,” he warned.

Scott’s focus during his tour of schools this week hasn’t been very clear. He has said he’s mostly just listening to concerns and ideas, and the school visits have been mostly closed to the media.

He also hasn’t been very focused during public remarks about what the idea for the tour is. Most of his discussions in radio interviews this week have been about concerns about testing, though Florida was already in the midst of changing its testing system. And Scott hasn’t been definitive about what type of testing system he favors, saying only that he thinks there needs to be a measurement system, but not one that is so central to the education system that it fosters teaching to the test.

He has mentioned on two occasions one quasi-funding issue – noting that he’s heard from teachers this week that many of them pay for school supplies because school budgets sometimes don’t. Teachers have complained about that for several years, but Scott seemed struck by it in conversations this week.

When pressed in a radio interview Wednesday on the thing that’s impressed him the most on his education tour this week, Scott again went back to testing, however.

“The amount of testing and the different types of testing,” Scott said on WFLA in Tampa when asked what has stood out in his conversations. “One thing that frustrates everybody is just the constant change.”

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