Charlie Crist 'Pathetic' for School Choice Reversal, Top Florida Republican Says
A few days ago, I took the temperature of Florida Democrats on education issues in the governor's race between Charlie Crist and GOP Gov. Rick Scott. So what about Sunshine State Republicans?
On Saturday, I had a chance to catch up with state Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican and chairman of the House K-12 appropriations subcommittee, when he took a break from campaigning for re-election. Crist and Scott are trying to outdo each other over state financial support for public school. Remember, Scott is pledging he will boost per-student spending next year above its record level in 2007-08, the first school year, it so happens, during Crist's previous term as governor. So I asked Fresen where the important differences are between them when it comes to school spending.
Fresen acknowledged that the two sound "superficially similar" about wanting to spend more money on schools because, "it's a campaign, you don't want to talk about less funding." (It's also worth pointing out that Fresen, as appropriations committee chairman, actually proposed a bigger K-12 budget for fiscal 2015 than Scott did.) But Fresen stressed that while it may be impossible to communicate in 30-second TV ads, "the difference is how they want to implement those tools."
What that means, according to Fresen, is eventually overhauling the state's funding system so that the county districts are essentially cut out of the mix. He wants Florida's per-student funding levels to be paid directly to schools, so that principals rather than elected school board members get to make key decisions about how funding is used.
That shift would represent truly robust local control for schools, instead of the "politicized" local control of school boards, Fresen argued.
"A school system at the end of the day is still a political body," Fresen told me, referring to local boards.
A Big 180?
Directly funding schools this way, according to Fresen, would also "amplify" and serve as the missing ingredient for the menu of reforms initiated 15 years ago by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, which included the A-F accountability for schools and a new standardized testing system known as the FCAT.
"It's literally turning around the battleship," Fresen said of his long-term vision.
As for Crist? Fresen scorns him as beholden to the Florida Education Association's mission to reverse recent changes such as how teacher contracts work. He noted that during his first term, Crist signed legislation expanding the state's tax-credit scholarship program, but is now refusing to criticize the FEA's suit against a new law that broadens the income-based eligibility for the program—the FEA has endorsed Crist for governor. Fresen called Crist's new political position "pathetic."
"He has done the biggest 180 you could ever do," Fresen told me.
PolitiFact Florida has done the service of tracking both total K-12 spending and per-student allocations under Crist and Scott. Both are vulnerable to the the accusation of cutting school funding, but Crist and Scott have slashed budgets as they have dealt with the recent recession and sluggish economic recovery, respectively.