TALLAHASSEE — Seeking to secure votes from parents and the tea party faithful, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday called for a review of Florida's controversial new education benchmarks and a "thorough investigation of all standardized tests."
The election-minded governor, who last week said he would boost per-student spending to an all-time high, also proposed more money for classroom technology and school-safety initiatives, and larger cash rewards for top teachers.
"We are going to continue to invest more money because our economy has turned around and we have the dollars to invest," said Scott. "It's my highest priority, along with jobs."
As for higher education, Scott pledged to pursue "additional strategies to keep the cost of college low" and require colleges and universities to notify the public about proposed tuition increases.
Both Scott and Democratic candidate Charlie Crist have spent the past few weeks building their education bona fides.
Crist toured the state in a school bus this month promising to restore the education budget to pre-recession levels.
Scott responded last week with a plan to raise per-student spending to $7,176 — roughly $50 above the high watermark set in 2007-08.
On Monday, Scott proposed adding an additional $10 million to school-safety funding, and doubling the investment in digital learning initiatives to $80 million.
"The more that our students are using digital (technology), there's a greater chance that they will be ahead of the game," Scott said.
In addition, he called for an independent committee to review the Florida Standards, the new education benchmarks based on the national Common Core State Standards. The standards outline what students are expected to know at each grade level, but do not include reading lists or lesson plans.
The benchmarks have been a contentious issue.
Florida adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010. But conservative parent groups and tea party members raised concerns about federal overreach last year, prompting Scott to hold three town hall meetings and solicit thousands of public comments on the benchmarks.
The months-long process led to minor revisions and a new name: the Florida Standards.
Of late, the Common Core controversy had died down in Florida — though it has been boiling over in other states, including Arizona, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said Scott was revisiting the debate to "pander to his tea party base."
But Chris Quackenbush, of the grassroots group Stop Common Core Florida, said another review process would not help Scott with Common Core opponents.
"Obviously, we are suspicious because we've seen this sleight of hand before," Quackenbush said. "We don't need to examine the standards again. We know exactly what's going on. Our children are being hurt."
Eric Miller, a Republican state committeeman from Martin County and Common Core opponent, called the move "a political smokescreen."
Scott said the review was not for political reasons, but to improve the overall quality of the public school system.
"Here's my experience in business: What you try to do is constantly improve the way you measure your success," he said. "I think you should be doing the same thing in government."
Scott also called on state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to "conduct a thorough investigation of all standardized tests."
State Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, a Trinity Republican, said he welcomed the opportunity to have that discussion.
"This is not saying we don't need assessments," Legg said. "But we have too many assessments that are interfering with one another and may be having an adverse effect on students."
Scott's plan also won some points from former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education — even though Bush supports Common Core and Florida's standardized testing program.
"We share Gov. Scott's commitment to expanding school choice options for Florida families, increasing the state's commitment to expanding digital learning investments in our schools and ensuring fewer, better tests are used in our classrooms," spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said.
Crist supports the Common Core standards. He has raised concerns that Florida schoolchildren take too many high-stakes tests.
On Monday, Crist campaign spokesman Kevin Cate said he doubted Scott's education plan would sway voters.
"There isn't an election-eve promise big enough to make parents and teachers forget that Rick Scott cut K-12 education funding by $1.3 billion after a failed attempt to cut $4.8 billion," Cate said.