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Scott's schools shake-up seems certain

Gov.-elect Rick Scott greets several private school students at the Suncoast Cathedral on Thursday. He urged students to agitate for voucher reform. Scott’s ideas include online charter schools and allowing students to advance to the next grade level more quickly.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Gov.-elect Rick Scott greets several private school students at the Suncoast Cathedral on Thursday. He urged students to agitate for voucher reform. Scott’s ideas include online charter schools and allowing students to advance to the next grade level more quickly.

When Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott stood in a church this week and dropped a policy bomb on the state's education establishment — a plan to essentially give vouchers to any family that wants one — 900 voucher kids in the audience cheered. But from Tampa Bay to Tallahassee, apocalyptic thoughts began raining on traditional public education advocates.

Vouchers for everybody?

Not even Jeb Bush went that far.

"Awful idea," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the state teachers union.

"There goes public education," said Pinellas School Board member Janet Clark.

Rick Scott's appearance at the St. Petersburg voucher event — his first school-related event since his election Nov. 2 — is the latest signal that Florida schools are in for a wild ride that may make the aggressive reforms of the Bush years look tame.

Just last week, Scott named an 18-member education transition team stocked with those who believe even more accountability and school choice is the antidote for ailing schools. The only teacher on board? From the online Florida Virtual School.

Meanwhile, he put former Washington. D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee — perhaps the most polarizing education figure in America — in charge of the group and did nothing to dispel rumors she might be Florida's education commissioner. (Rhee said on Oprah she had other plans.)

All this after a campaign in which Scott said he wanted to kill teacher tenure and would have signed Senate Bill 6, the bill vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist that tried to radically transform how teachers are paid and contracted.

Scott is "trying to scare the bejeebers" out of teachers unions and mainstream supporters of traditional public schools, said Darryl Paulson, a retired political science professor from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "He's throwing down the gauntlet and saying, 'Either join our forces or get run over.' "

In a brief interview, Scott said he wasn't trying to be provocative. And he said no one should be surprised.

"I put out a very specific plan," he said.

Scott did put out an education plan during the campaign. But with so much attention devoted to his past as head of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, and to the $1.7 billion in fines his company paid in the largest Medicare fraud case in U.S. history, it didn't get much coverage.

Now people are taking a closer look. Scott's plan includes other ideas that push the envelope, including creation of online charter schools and allowing students to advance to the next subject or grade level as soon as they've mastered the material.

Other actions since the election are sparking worry with the old guard. Scott also appointed longtime Bush associate Patricia Levesque to his education team. And he's taking a close look at slashing state contributions to public employee pensions, which includes teachers.

"It's like that movie: He's Just Not That Into You," said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas teachers union. "We're realistic. We're going to continue to fight to have a voice at the table."

When Scott spoke Thursday of giving all students the same opportunities as voucher students, he didn't mention "educational savings accounts" by name. But that's the proposal being crafted by Bush's education foundation to fit with Scott's vision of allowing state education dollars to follow all students to the schools their parents choose.

The state's current voucher programs, by contrast, are limited to students who are low-income or disabled.

A draft of the plan that surfaced Friday, written by Levesque, says parents of eligible students would receive 85 percent of the state's per-pupil funding figure, which is $6,843 this year.

"I don't think it's radical at all," said Lindsey Burke, education policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "At this point, the radical notion is to trap a child in a failing public school."

"I love it," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.

It could unlock an "educational marketplace," said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, one of House Speaker Dean Cannon's education advisers. "The parent would not be bound by an attendance boundary, but rather would have the ability to compete and put their child in whatever school they think will best meet their child's needs."

School board members, union officials and Democratic lawmakers, though, gasped at the sweep of it.

"There had been talk of expansion of the (voucher) program," said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg. "But that's not an expansion. That's a takeover."

To some, Scott's proposal validated a long-held theory: that the real end game for Jeb Bush and conservative Republicans has been to privatize schools.

"They've been back-dooring this for years," said Clark, the School Board member. "And we just got enough fruity voters this time who didn't do their research . . . and now we have to live with it."

Around Tampa Bay, top school officials wondered how the savings accounts would impact their world.

"It's hard to predict. . . . It's so huge it's hard to get your arms around it," said Pinellas deputy superintendent Jim Madden.

But Madden also said he didn't think many parents would take advantage. The vast majority are happy with their schools and wouldn't want to leave, he said.

In Hillsborough, superintendent MaryEllen Elia — who is a member of Scott's education transition team — said any program that allowed every student to take all or most of their state funding to a private school would be "very unsettling" to public schools. For one thing, a universal voucher program would potentially undermine district efforts to plan for student enrollment, which in turn drives decisions on how many buildings to construct and how many teachers to hire.

"It would be very difficult to keep any kind of public school system in place," Elia said. "You wouldn't know what was going on with funding."

It remains to be seen how much traction the plan gets. But Scott told the students at the voucher event that he was going to fight for it. And they should, too.

"You call your House members and you call your Senate members and you constantly tell them this type of bill is important," he said. "Because if you don't, what will happen will be the same thing that happened to SB 6. . . . The people who don't want to be held accountable, that don't want change, they're going to win the day."

Times staff writers Tom Marshall and Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Scott's schools shake-up seems certain 12/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 10, 2010 11:03pm]

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