MIAMI — Saying the state's current education system isn't working, newly minted Gov. Rick Scott came to an Opa-locka charter Thursday to unveil some of his initiatives.
"We need to put the students first," said Scott, accompanied by his newly named education adviser Michelle Rhee.
The duo's plan:
• Offer parents more choices for their children, with a focus of increasing the number of charter schools;
• Establish a merit pay system, that would reward high-performance teachers and weed out the poor ones;
• Focus on accountability and efficiency, finding ways to build and maintain schools for less money.
"We have to make sure our system does exactly what you are doing here at Florida International Academy," Scott said to a group of parents, students and teachers.
The school, which has 98 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch, became a double "A'' school after having years of "F'' scores.
Rhee said the Opa-locka school was a perfect example of how charter schools can accomplish things quicker and at a lower cost than typical public schools because there is less paperwork involved.
For example, Florida International Academy built an expansion — scheduled to open later this year — for a third less because it didn't have to follow the same procurement and other policies when it comes to construction, Rhee said.
"There needs to be more accountability," she said. "We spend more money per child than any other nation and the results do not come with it."
The governor and Rhee also support offering a choice to parents when it comes to their child's education. Rhee says charter schools, which receive state money but follow different guidelines than traditional schools, are a good option.
"If we create competition, everybody will improve," Scott said.
Scott said Thursday his education plan rests heavily on having well-qualified teachers. In order to recruit and retain high-quality teachers, "you have to reward them."
The merit pay plan, however, has been criticized by most teachers unions.
"The unions and their policies aren't really of much concern because we're going to be focused on the kids," said Rhee.
Saying she believes Scott is committed to reforming education, Rhee also announced Florida would be the first state to partner with her Students First initiative, created late last year to ensure better education nationwide.
"Rick Scott has the courage and vision unlike a lot of leaders in this country," she said. "We are poised, under his leadership, to change the face of education."
Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school district, is perhaps the most recognizable educator in the country. She has been featured on the cover of Time magazine and played a prominent role in this year's documentary Waiting for Superman. The film, which delves into public education in the United States, was highly supportive of charter schools.
In Washington, Rhee stirred up controversy when she closed two dozen under-enrolled schools and fired hundreds of teachers who had received poor evaluations.
As chancellor, Rhee said she learned that most of the decisions made in running a school "had nothing to do with the kids."
"Students need to be at the forefront of every decision," she said.
Scott said he was thrilled to have Rhee committed to Florida's education.
In early December, he named her to his education transition team and on Wednesday tapped her to be his special education adviser, fueling rumors he wants her to take over as state education secretary.
Rhee did not address whether she would accept the job, but Enu Mainigi, chairwoman of Scott's transition team, said Rhee has her hands full with the Students First initiative.
However, Broward Teacher Union President Pat Santeramo was apprehensive about Rhee's involvement in Florida education.
"She does not have a great track record in Washington, D.C.," he said.
Florida Commissioner of Education Eric Smith did not attend Thursday's visit to Opa-locka. He and four others recently formed Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan group that also wants to see more school choice options and teachers rewarded for high performance.
Florida International Academy Principal Sonia Mitchell called Scott's visit "humbling."
As principal for the last 12 years, Mitchell said being a charter school has its perks, including being able to hire and fire without going through the same district practices. Over the years, she said she has had to fire about 20 teachers based on performance.
"We hold our teachers to a very high standard," Mitchell said. "That definitely should be done across the state."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.