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Fla.'s Charlie Crist on the Stump: K-12 Priorities, Funding, and Privatization

Kissimmee, Fla.

Talking here to supporters of Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee to be Florida's next governor, their eagerness to move on from GOP Gov. Rick Scott's control over public schools was palpable.

And it's a close call as to whether those supporters will get to move on or not. A Sept. 24 poll on the Florida governor's race by Quinnipiac University labeled the race "too close to call," with 44 percent of likely voters supporting Scott and 42 percent supporting Crist. A Libertarian Party candidate, Adrian Wyllie, got 8 percent. Interestingly, more respondents than not labeled both Crist and Scott as not honest and trustworty, and both candidates have net negative approval ratings, too. 

Combine that with a recent poll showing education to be the second-most important policy topic in Florida among adult residents, and it's a high-stakes election for education in Florida.

During a brief stop at a campaign field office to speak with supporters, Crist made sure to touch on schools during his laundry list of the motivations for his campaign. "It's for the teachers, it's for the students." he said.

For state Sen. Darren Soto, a Democrat at the campaign field office to see Crist, that meant one thing: bigger K-12 budgets. He drew a contrast for me: While the fiscal 2015 budget Scott approved is the largest in state history, per-student spending in Florida peaked at the start of Crist's previous term as governor in the 2007-08 school year. "I believe the history speaks volumes," Soto told me. 

The narrative isn't quite so neat—Scott increased K-12 spending by $1 billion this year and has pledged to boost per-student spending above what Crist approved in 2007-08. And when the recent recession hit, Crist cut funds for schools. (Crist served as governor from 2007 to 2011 as a Republican, and switched parties in 2012.)

But Scott's recent actions don't cut any ice with Celeste Williams, an attorney who is running for state representative in central Florida as a Democrat.

"The facts just belie that. It's ridiculous. There are not enough teachers. ... Anything he's doing now is just to cover up what he did four years ago," Williams said, a reference to the fiscal 2012 budget Scott approved that cut $1.3 billion from K-12.

Crist has made a big deal about teacher layoffs, but the extent to which Scott's early budget cuts led directly to mass lay-offs is up for debate.

Both Williams and Albyn Roman, the Polk County president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus in the state, derided Scott for being a "privatizer." Roman singled out the presence in Florida of "for-profit education at the expense of public education," a reference to for-profit charter management organizations. Crist made a general allusion to this idea when he criticized Scott for trying to put the state in general "up for sale."

Realism Over Zeal

But despite their enthusiasm for Crist, supporters acknowledged that—assuming the GOP keeps control of the legislature—there are limits to what Crist can accomplish. 

Take the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, the nation's largest school choice program. Earlier this year, Scott approved legislation that will expand it by allowing more families, based on increasing household income limits, to be eligible for the scholarship. Crist's position on the scholarships has been the topic of some debate. Earlier this month he appeared to side, albeit not very forcefully, with the Florida Education Association in its legal battle against that legislation. Crist said the state teachers' union, which has endorsed him, has "every right" to sue over the scholarship-expansion bill, and refused to say it should drop the suit. 

So how does Soto think Crist will act toward tax-credit scholarships? Soto thinks his fellow Democrat will take a "balanced approach," saying that while he won't try to roll the program back, he'll veto efforts to make it go further. "I don't expect him to support any increases in the program."

Interestingly, Soto voted for the bill expanding the scholarship eligibility limits in its final form, illustrating that for Democrats—including, perhaps, for Crist—the tax-credit program can be politically complicated.

And with a GOP-controlled legislature, it's not clear how Crist's pledge for significantly greater resources for schools would turn out. Nor is it clear that Crist will be able or willing to do much about standardized testing in Florida, a hot-button political topic in the state and one which Williams told me faculty have been complaining about for years because, "They've been teaching to the exam."

"There's not going to be much drastic change," Roman conceded. 

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