Polls show Governor Rick Scott and former Governor Charlie Crist are polarizing. Voters are as likely to dislike the candidates as they are to approve of them.
So both candidates are talking about schools, colleges and scholarships — to motivate their supporters.
“Education is an issue that is helping to appeal to the base,” says Sean Foreman, a Barry University political science professor and chairman of the education committee for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
Foreman says they’ve got a pretty good idea what a second term of either candidate would mean for education.
“I think Rick Scott is going to focus on more spending, but with that will come more strings attached and more testing involved,” Foreman says. “[Crist] will also call for more spending, but more spending in public schools and less focus on vouchers like the Republicans have.”
So far, the big argument has been over funding for public schools. Both candidates can say they’ve supported more money for schools.
Scott did at an August campaign event in Homestead.
“Now we have that record funding for education,” he told the crowd, and his claim is true: $18.9 billion in a year is the most Florida has ever spent on education.
Scott got there by requesting more funding each of the last two years. But during his first year in office, he balanced the budget by cutting $1.3 billion from public schools.
Still, what’s being spent on each student this year is just under $200 less than the all-time high in 2007 – when Crist was governor.
Crist reminded teachers of that fact at a Miami rally in September.
“We funded per-pupil funding greater than what Rick Scott is doing with almost a $3 billion surplus,” Crist told United Teachers of Dade members. “We don’t have a revenue problem here in Florida. We have a priority problem here in Florida.”
Foreman, the political scientist, says both candidates will probably spend more on public schools.
“Education is going to be a winner either way,” he says. “As long as the state budget grows as expected, we’re going to see more dollars. The difference is in how those dollars are spent.”
So public schools will likely see more money no matter who is governor, but Scott and Crist have different plans for the state’s college scholarship program, Bright Futures.
In 2011, lawmakers raised the test scores required to get those scholarships. Now, fewer than half as many students are getting those scholarships.
Crist says, if he’s governor, he’ll expand the program. That’s what he said at a Telemundo debate answering a question about Hispanic Floridians.
“About 50,000 young people. Hispanic, African-American and otherwise, not having that opportunity to get a higher education in Florida today,” Crist said.
Scott argues he’s made Bright Futures go further for those who do receive the scholarships. That’s because he’s opposed increasing tuition at Florida universities. He also got lawmakers to change a law that let universities raise tuition on their own.
“He passed legislation that allowed tuition to go up 15 percent year after year after year,” Scott said. “And what actually happened was you thought you got Bright Futures, a free ride, but you actually didn’t.”
There are big differences between the candidates when it comes to teachers.
Another problem for the candidates? They’ve both changed their minds on high-profile education issues.
Scott asked for more public school funding after initially supporting cuts. He also once supported Florida’s Common Core math and language arts standards. But he got squishy when conservative activists opposed the standards.
Crist once supported school choice but now says the state should focus more on traditional public schools. He also supports a lawsuit challenging a private-school scholarship program.
Barry University’s Foreman says these flip-flops are why polls show both candidates are unpopular.
“A majority of voters don’t trust either Rick Scott or Charlie Crist,” he says. “So there’s always that concern that after the election is over they’ll change their mind again.”
The Florida governor’s race has gotten national attention – specifically because of education. Former Gov. Jeb Bush has hit the trail with Scott. And the president of the nation’s largest teacher’s union has campaigned for Crist — and made Scott a top target.