As Gov. Rick Scott gets around the state, one message from Floridians comes through loud and clear.
"They care about education," Scott says.
This governor, who sought a 10 percent cut in school spending a year ago, appears to have learned an important lesson: No matter how bad the economy gets, cutting money for schools never seems popular.
Scott ran for governor on a promise of property tax relief, which sounds great until you realize that a big chunk of the relief has to come from schools, largely funded by property taxes.
Once elected, Scott called for that 10 percent cut, after promising to keep state education funding whole. The Republican Legislature passed and Scott signed a budget that cut school spending nearly 8 percent or $542 per student. At the same time, polls showed Scott's disapproval rating steadily rising.
As Scott prepares to unveil his next budget proposal, he's singing a markedly different tune when it comes to schools.
"Investing in education provides a return on investment we simply cannot ignore," Scott wrote last week in an opinion piece to newspapers. "We clearly must find a way to increase our investment in Florida's students."
He describes a "perfect storm" of an enrollment increase of more than 30,000 students next year, a projected 3 percent dropoff in property taxes due to homes losing value, and a disappearance of a half billion dollars in federal stimulus money.
"In spite of this bleak budget picture," Scott wrote, "I am committed to increasing Florida's investment in the education of our young people."
How can he pull that off in a year when a nearly $2 billion shortfall looms?
Scott says he'll squeeze agencies' budgets. "I'm going to have to make choices," he said.
A leading Democrat says the minority party should take Scott at his word and force him to make up for last year's cut of about $1.3 billion.
Former Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, his party's 2010 attorney general nominee, spoke Monday at a seminar at Florida State University sponsored by the Florida Education Association, a teachers union and a bulwark of the Democratic Party.
After reading Scott's op-ed piece, "I wasn't sure it was the same Rick Scott who's the governor of Florida," Gelber said. "Has he changed that much? Is this a true conversion?"
Citing state-by-state rankings from Morgan Quitno Press, a favorite device from his days as a state legislator, Gelber said Florida ranks near the bottom of states in K-12 expenditures, average teacher salaries, SAT scores and high school graduation rates.
Of course, Gelber's party, which ran this state for more than a century of educational mediocrity, bears its share of the blame as well.
But Republicans are in charge now, and with that power comes responsibility.
"I'm going to hold him to his word," Gelber said, holding up a copy of Scott's op-ed piece. "If he really means it, and this article is not just words, but something he believes, he will tell the Florida Legislature, 'I will veto any budget that does not restore the cuts of last year.' "
Scott will release his budget plan Wednesday, and Senate budget committees will start scrutinizing them Thursday.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.