TALLAHASSEE — The governor's race on Thursday turned into a contest to see who would spend more on education.
Days after Democratic frontrunner Charlie Crist pledged to boost the education budget while touring the state in a yellow school bus, Republican Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a plan to raise school spending to a record high next year.
Scott called upon the state to spend $7,176 for each student in the public school system — a $232 increase over the current level and a $50 increase over the high-water mark set in 2007-08.
The proposal was driven by the rebounding economy, Scott told the Times/Herald.
"If you look at what's happening in our state, we're continuing to see good job growth," he said. "With job growth, our state revenues are continuing to grow."
But critics were quick to paint the announcement as an election-year gimmick, in part because of the unusual timing.
In previous years, Scott has released his budget proposals weeks before the legislative session begins. Lawmakers aren't scheduled to return to Tallahassee for six months.
"We believe he can read the polls as well as we can, and he thinks this will give him a leg up with parents and teachers," said Joanne McCall, vice president of the statewide teachers union, which has endorsed Crist. "But we have a long memory."
Scott released similar plans to increase state spending on transportation and the environment earlier this summer.
During his three-day bus tour last week, Crist reminded Floridians that Scott cut $1.3 billion in education spending during his first year in office in 2011.
Crist promised to restore the cuts, but did not provide specifics. He is expected to defeat former Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, in Tuesday's Democratic primary.
Under Scott's plan, the education budget would grow from $18.9 billion to $19.6 billion.
The numbers are based on revenue estimates from Aug. 7 that project $1.1 billion in growth above the previous forecast, the governor's office said.
House Education Budget Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said he believes the plan is feasible. Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican on the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, agreed.
Some Democrats, however, were skeptical.
Scott "said he wanted to expand Medicaid, too," said Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale. "He doesn't have a good record of following through with these things."
Crist was Florida's new Republican governor when school spending reached an all-time high in 2007. But he cut the education budget by about $800 million when the economy collapsed the following year. He kept funding levels relatively consistent through 2010 with the help of federal stimulus dollars.
Scott came into office in 2011 proposing to slash $3.3 billion from the education budget. The Legislature approved a $1.3 billion cut — more than $1 billion of which was restored in 2013 when the economy improved.
Scott has continued to take heat from critics. Democrats say that even his latest proposal for per-pupil spending would lag behind the 2007-08 level, which equates to $8,191 in 2014 dollars.
"No right-minded parent or teacher in this state believes Rick Scott, the same guy who cut K-12 education by $1.3 billion, cares about anything but holding onto power so he can keep giving away our tax dollars to corporations," Crist campaign spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said.
Pasco School Board Chairwoman Alison Crumbley said any boost in funding would help.
"I'm not saying that money solves all the problems," she said. "But our teachers' salaries have not kept up, and there are a lot of student resources that our kids could benefit from."
Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia agreed.
"We have demands on our students for new assessments and new standards, and on our teachers," she said. "All of those things are just huge. We also have technology demands we clearly are working on."
Elia declined to comment on the politics of the move.
"Whatever the reason, it's an important thing to understand (that) education is important to our children and families," she said.
Herald/Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.