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The week that was in Florida politics: If you can read the political winds, thank a teacher

By on September 16, 2012

If you can read the political winds, thank a teacher.

Gov. Rick Scott seems to have thought this week that maybe he could learn a thing or two from teachers, if he’d just listen to them. Republicans have been on rocky terms with the education establishment for some time, and while teachers are a pretty diverse group, the union that represents many of them has never been a big fan of Scott.

But people in the governor’s office must be reading something that tells them education might just be a popular topic for voters.

And so this week, Scott headed out to see what teachers and parents are talking about in the state’s classrooms and kid drop-off zones. Scott visited schools in just about every corner of the state and in the middle this week, saying it was a listening tour to get good ideas for how to improve education.

Scott also sent out letters to students around the state, urging them to focus on their schooling, and cautioning college freshmen about borrowing too much in student loans.

“This week, I am traveling all across Florida to meet with teachers, parents and students in order to get their ideas for ways we can strengthen our education system,” Scott said last weekend in his regular radio address. “Our goal is better prepare our kids for college and careers. Some of my meetings will be roundtables where I will sit down and have a conversation on the types of policies we need to put in place at the state level.”

A number of Democrats, including lawmakers and candidates, dismissed the tour as a public relations stunt that won’t change much, and criticized Republicans for presiding over several years of budget cuts to public schools. While the Republican-led Legislature, pushed by Scott, did increase school spending by about $1 billion last year, the education budget was cut by roughly the same amount the year before, making the increase a wash.

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

Among the most vocal critics of Republican education policy over the last decade and a half has been the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union. An FEA spokesman has called Scott’s new interest in the details of education policy a campaign move.

But on Friday, the governor was concluding his reach-out and listen tour with a dinner with the FEA at the Governor’s Mansion, so maybe there’s some common ground that can be found.

What exactly the governor’s education agenda will be during the next two years is a bit hard to glean. He did several radio interviews this week in which he was thrown open-ended softballs on what he was learning from the school visits, and Scott talked about some of the things he heard from teachers, but didn’t say what that might mean for policy changes.

For example, Scott mentioned in a few interviews that he heard from a lot of teachers that they pay for supplies out of their pockets. He also wrote about that on a blog his office published this week.

“The Southwest faculty also shared that they often could use help to purchase supplies for their classrooms that they now pay for personally,” Scott wrote on the blog after visiting Southwest Miami High School. Whether he may have any ideas for that help, Scott didn’t say.

In fact, Scott never mentioned – though in fairness, nor was he ever asked in the radio interviews – whether taking note of the supply issue might mean he will push for some policy change. Teacher pay didn’t get talked about much this week, nor did Scott make any mention of what he will ask lawmakers for in terms of the education budget for the coming year.

“After visiting classrooms, we talked to a group of teachers,” Scott wrote on his blog. “Each of them offered great suggestions on how requirements and regulations from the state could be changed to allow them to focus more on student learning.”

What those suggestions were, Scott didn’t say, and the meetings were closed to the public and press. So if the governor didn’t write what he learned, no one did.

Similarly, Scott said several times this week that he heard from teachers that there are too many different tests that students must take, and there doesn’t seem to be much coordination in terms of the measurement system.

But Scott declined – again he wasn’t asked – to discuss what his administration might do about that. He did mention a couple of times that Florida is moving away from the FCAT, but that is something that’s been in the works for several years. The previous governor, Charlie Crist, signed a law shifting away from that particular test.

Scott did say in his blog that all the students, parents and teachers he met agree with him that jobs are important, and that education is important for preparing students to be able to get them.

MO MONEY, OR NO MONEY?

If the governor is thinking about asking for an increase in the education budget, he may have a sales job in the Legislature, the incoming Senate president indicated this week.

There’s no question Scott, whose popularity has never been as high as he’d like, got some good will from this year’s decision to restore the education cuts from 2011.

State revenue forecasters said this week that tax collections are up a bit, and lawmakers are expected for the first time in several years to be looking at beginning the budget writing process in the black.

But while the Legislature will have about $71.3 million of breathing room when they begin crafting the budget for the coming fiscal year, most in the Legislature expressed caution, a fear that the situation could still change, and a warning that the amount in the black is, overall, pretty small.

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz this week called it “a footnote” to the state’s roughly $70 billion budget.

In reality, Gaetz said in an interview with The News Service, “there is no extra money.”

Gaetz, a former school superintendent, also said that more spending doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes and he’s seen that first hand.

“The question about education spending is not just how much, but how it is being used,” Gaetz said. “We need to redeploy some – not all – but some education dollars for 21st Century methods, like online education. It isn’t always the case that more money, shoved at a 1950s model, is always the best.”

Scott clearly thinks that more money is, at a minimum, a good talking point, however. During at least one of his school visits this week, a big sign touting “$1 Billion for Education” was strategically placed behind Scott as he met with teachers, ensuring it would be in the photos of the event.

The forecast for increased revenue didn’t get the cheers expected because, well, it’s not that much.

“It is very good news in terms of the fact that there’s no budget gap, but we would give you the warning that there’s not much of a cushion there,” the Legislature’s head of revenue forecasting, Amy Baker, said midweek. She also warned that there are plenty of things to be worried about in terms of the economy and that a retrenchment isn’t out of the picture.

The news about the state’s improving economic forecast came as the Federal Reserve announced this week a third round of bond-buying known as “quantitative easing,” with an eye toward boosting the still slugging mortgage market. The Fed said it will buy $40 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities a month until the outlook for the labor market improves.

That was probably quietly applauded by lawmakers and Scott, who would likely benefit if the unemployment rate continues to drop. Still, there was also on the national economic scene this week the looming threat of spending cuts and possible tax increases that could happen automatically at the end of the year, which could further stall the economy.

PRISON PRIVATIZATION

Also this week, the Legislative Budget Commission, gave its OK to a planned privatization of the health care services at the state’s prisons.

The state prisons department was initially authorized by lawmakers to privatize health services last year in the state budget, but the plan got held up in the courts.

When the new budget year started July 1, the authorization in the budget technically expired.

The Department of Corrections and backers of the privatization plan say the agency doesn’t need approval of the full Legislature to make the policy change. But the department had to go to the LBC, which approves mid-year budget amendments, to get money moved around so the process could go forward. The budget change passed the panel on a 6-4 party-line vote with Republicans in favor.

That should mean the proposal will go forward in January. But unlike the jumpsuits worn by some prisoners, the future of the plan is hardly black and white.

First, a union that represents many state workers, AFSCME, has vowed a new lawsuit on the issue. Meanwhile, one of the contractors interested in providing health services in the prison system has filed a case at a state appeals court over the bidding.

Wexford Health Sources, which is slated to receive a contract to provide inmate health care in South Florida, filed a notice last week that it will appeal a DOC decision to dismiss a bid protest. Wexford filed the protest in July, after the department indicated it would contract with a competitor, Corizon, Inc., to serve prisons in other parts of the state.

In one other big money issue this week, Florida Power & Light was before state regulators asking for approval to charge customers for roughly $150 million in costs for upgrading, and possibly building, nuclear reactors. For residential customers who use 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a month, the nuclear costs would translate to $1.65 on their 2013 bills. The utility contends that generating more nuclear power will lead to long-term savings, because FPL would not have to buy as much natural gas for other power plants. The Public Service Commission will decide later this year on the issue.

POLITICS: WILL FLA DEMOCRATS GIVE CRIST A BEAR HUG – OR THE FINGER

Fresh off his speaking turn at the Democratic National Convention, Charlie Crist returned to Florida, and quickly found that while he may not be welcomed by all Democrats as a candidate, he would fare pretty well.

The former Republican governor drew nearly 30 percent of the support of Democratic voters who were polled on their choices for a gubernatorial candidate in 2014 – within the margin of error of a dead heat with the party’s last gubernatorial nominee, Alex Sink. The poll showed Crist and Sink well ahead of anyone else, with Miami advocate Anthony Kennedy Shriver far back in third.

Crist’s break with the Republican Party – (stipulated: he says he didn’t leave, they left him, but whatever) – may have begun when he famously hugged President Obama.

After Fort Pierce pizza shop owner Scott Van Duzer was photographed lifting President Obama off the ground in a bear hug during an Obama campaign stop this week, Crist decided to get in on the action. He showed up at Van Duzer’s shop on Wednesday and claimed his own giant hug.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott spends the week in school, visiting classrooms from Miami to Quincy and at points in between, listening to teachers, students and parents, and even later meeting with union officials. Whether he’s laying the groundwork for rolling out an education agenda, or simply taking the chance to get some positive photo opportunities and TV B-roll was less clear.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “You know what I’m here for.” Charlie Crist, reportedly, as he walked into the pizza shop where President Obama got a bear hug this week, and claimed his own hug from shop owner Scott Van Duzer.

Via The News Service of Florida

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