TALLAHASSEE — It seemed like the commotion over Common Core had died down in Florida.
But a dustup last month in the Lee County school system, the state's ninth-largest district with 85,000 students, reignited the debate over the controversial education benchmarks — and put the issue front and center in the governor's race.
Observers say it could present a challenge for Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
To win on Nov. 4, Scott must rally an active and vocal part of his base: tea party members who want to eviscerate the new standards. But he's also vying for votes from moderate Republicans who support the Common Core standards. And he's keenly aware that former Gov. Jeb Bush has been a powerful driving force behind the standards' success.
Democratic candidate Charlie Crist has embraced the Common Core but is less likely to face pushback for his position. Although some Democrats believe the benchmarks will stifle creativity in the classroom, most support the concept.
"Gov. Scott is straddling this issue as best he can," said University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith, adding that Common Core could make a difference in a close race.
The latest Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/UF Bob Graham Center poll showed Scott leading Crist, 41 percent to 36 percent. Other polls show a far tighter contest.
The Common Core State Standards were developed by the bipartisan National Governors Association, and have been adopted in 43 states and the District of Columbia. They outline what students should know at every grade level.
There was little dissent in 2010 when Florida approved the benchmarks. But last year, conservative parents and tea party groups began raising concerns about federal intrusion into public education, even though the federal government was not involved in the development of the standards.
The opposition in Florida grew so strong that Scott ordered the state to pull out of a consortium of states developing Common Core tests. He also called for a series of public hearings that prompted state education officials to tweak the benchmarks and rename them the Florida Standards.
Critics derided the changes as cosmetic. (The Common Core State Standards Initiative website continues to list Florida as a state that has adopted the standards.) But they backed off of their attacks on Scott in the spring and early summer.
In other states, opposition has been building in a public way.
Oklahoma and Indiana repealed the Common Core standards this year. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal in Louisiana has said he wants to jettison the standards, and filed a lawsuit against the federal government for coercing states to adopt them.
Public opinion has also been shifting against Common Core.
A Gallup Poll released Aug. 20 found that 59 percent of Americans oppose the use of Common Core standards. Of the Republicans surveyed, 76 percent said they objected to the new benchmarks.
Scott's campaign has taken note.
In recent weeks, Scott's top education adviser, Kim MacDougal, who is on leave to work with the campaign, has met with Common Core opponents to address their lingering concerns. What's more, Scott called for a review of the standards as part of a larger education plan that boosts per-student spending to a record high of $7,176 and increases spending on classroom technology.
The issue boiled over in Lee County in late August, when Common Core critics persuaded the School Board to approve a moratorium on the tests associated with the standards. The board reversed its decision last week, citing concerns that the district would lose its state funding. But opponents took advantage of the opportunity to increase the pressure on Scott.
During a public meeting, Lee County School Board Chairman Thomas Scott (no relation to the governor) said Florida needed a leader "who had enough courage" to reject the standards.
When asked his position on the benchmarks Thursday, Scott repeated talking points that he and others were "tired of federal government overreach."
"What Florida wants to do is we have our own standards," Scott said. "We've told the federal government they're not going to dictate how we run our education system. And that's what we're going to continue to do."
For some tea party supporters, that doesn't go far enough.
Randy Osborne, a member of the Florida Eagle Forum and the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition, said he and others are pressing Scott to take action before the election.
"This issue could really hurt him," Osborne said. "If he can't get his base out, he can't win."
But Sean Foreman, an associate professor of political science at Barry University, said it would not make sense for Scott to bash the standards.
"It would do him more harm than good electorally because people who are opposed to Common Core are still going to vote for him over Charlie Crist," Foreman said.
Luz Gonzalez, a Republican activist from Miami-Dade who opposes the standards, said she doubts many Republicans would skip Election Day or cast their votes for another candidate.
"I think we have a little more integrity than to vote only on this issue," she said.
Miami Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Christina Veiga contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]erald.com.