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Rick Scott's education road show was nice, but advocates want specifics

TALLAHASSEE — It will take more than a listening tour to convince education advocates across Florida that Gov. Rick Scott is on their side.

They are wary, skeptical even, of the man they've mostly seen as an adversary for the past two years. Now, they wait to see what kind of policies Scott proposes for the 2013 legislative session and budget and whether his decisions reflect their advice.

"We were actually thrilled when finally he realized that we are the right persons to go to when you're asking about parents," said Eileen Segal, president of the Florida PTA, who met with the governor a couple of weeks ago. "We're hoping that this is only the first of many conversations."

Segal said she is willing to trust Scott but is waiting to see what he does.

"We're watching," she said. "That's all I can say; we're watching."

After all, this is a governor whose first-year budget slashed education funding by $1.1 billion and who took eight months before visiting a traditional public school while class was in session. This is a governor who traveled to a Jacksonville-area charter school to sign his first bill into law — eliminating tenure for new K-12 teachers and tying their pay increases to students' performance.

And this is a governor who has said he hopes to increase the number of charter schools and has pushed for more vouchers to allow students to use public funds to attend private schools — all while funding for traditional public schools has declined.

"I'm an elementary teacher, so I try never to close the door on anybody," said Florida Education Association president Andy Ford. "Some day you're going to see the light and it's going to click, and I think that may have happened for the governor."

The governor already has made some decisions, such as announcing that he will not support reductions in education spending in 2013. He also created a committee of seven superintendents that will come up with recommendations to reduce regulations and paperwork for teachers.

But Scott has left the bulk of the discussions open-ended for now. He's still listening, he has said, and the legislative session doesn't begin until March. He said the biggest obstacle is getting clear answers on how the system should change.

"A lot of people want to say, 'We don't like what's going on.' " Scott said. "But what I try to say is, 'Okay, be very specific. What would you change?' That's not easy for people to do."

Scott said his decisions will be focused on what is best for the state's children: "My job is to show people I care about students, to make good decisions with the simple premise: Is it good for helping a student either to get ready for college or a career? Everything is tied to that."

Linda Kobert, cofounder of parent advocacy organization Fund Education Now, said Scott should make a bold move early on to demonstrate that he is listening and acting in good faith. She wants him to come out against the "parent trigger" bill.

The legislation, supported by Republicans and charter school advocates, died in the Senate in 2012 on a tie vote. It would have allowed parents to turn low-performing public schools into charter schools, and advocates have vowed to bring it up again next year. Scott supported the bill, calling it "logical." But a coalition of parent organizations, including the Florida PTA, opposed the bill.

"If the governor were to come out forcefully and publicly in support of the parents' position on that particular piece of legislation it would go a long way for parents trusting that he has their best interest in mind," Kobert said.

But Sen. Nancy Detert doesn't think it's time yet for Scott to take sides on hot-button issues. Detert, a Venice Republican and former Sarasota County School Board member, opposed the "parent trigger" bill. She said Scott should focus more broadly, coming up with a comprehensive education policy that defines his administration. She noted that former Gov. Jeb Bush and his foundation still have a prominent voice.

"Gov. Scott needs to put his own personal stamp on what kind of system that he wants," Detert said. "Most of the ideas have been coming from a previous governor, so what we need is the current governor to let us know what his thoughts are."

By virtue of his highly publicized education listening tour, Scott has heightened the stakes for his education agenda.

If he appears to acquiesce to unions and advocacy organizations too much, he could lose favor with the tea party that embraced him as an outsider. On the other hand, if the education community doesn't see their thoughts incorporated into his plan the recent goodwill could erode.

For example, Scott has said he would like to tie school funding increases to student achievement. Depending on the specifics, unions and school districts might balk at the idea that schools with more affluent populations could get more money by virtue of higher test scores.

Scott also must overcome criticism that he's not serious about education policy, and he must deflect accusations that he's using teachers and schools as the first wave of his 2014 re-election campaign.

Already, the Republican Party of Florida has aired two television ads touting Scott's commitment to public education.

Colleen Wood, founder of the education organization 50th No More, said there remains a distrust of the governor and Legislature among public school advocates. This year could be a breaking point, she said.

"They will get to a point where they can do no right if they don't do right soon," she said. "You can only burn bridges so many times before there's none left standing."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com.

Rick Scott's education road show was nice, but advocates want specifics 09/25/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 11:06pm]
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