Saturday, April 21, 2018
Editorials

Scott's hollow education commitment

Gov. Rick Scott's commitment to cost-efficient government is as phony as his pledge to produce more math and engineering students. If the governor were sincere in those pursuits, he would have vetoed an expensive new university and endorsed a modest $2 million investment in a proven program to teach algebra to middle school students. Instead, the governor signed into law late Friday the creation of Florida Polytechnic University, just three days after vetoing the money to expand the innovative digital math effort. It adds up to just another calculating politician who says one thing and does another.

The new university will soak generations of taxpayers for untold millions, while the expanded algebra program could have bred generations of new engineers. Florida Polytech has no faculty, no students, no buildings and no hope of academic accreditation for years. Yet Scott handed Sen. JD Alexander his expensive trophy by spinning off the University of South Florida's Lakeland branch into a new university and committing more than $50 million over this year and next to this grand illusion. The governor ignored the advice of the Florida Council of 100, a prominent business group that urged a veto and argued the state cannot afford a 12th public university as it cuts $300 million in higher education spending.

But Scott does not listen to advice even from those he courts to create more jobs and diversify Florida's economy. The developer of the digital algebra program that already has produced significant learning gains is SRI International, a prominent California-based nonprofit research institution. SRI opened a St. Petersburg branch in 2007 after being recruited by Gov. Jeb Bush. It is routinely mentioned in the same breath as the Scripps Research Institute in South Florida as the type of cutting-edge, high-tech economic driver Florida seeks. Curt Carlson, the California-based president and CEO of SRI, spoke with Scott about the importance of the algebra project being tested in Pinellas County with hopes to expand statewide. The $2 million was to be the start of a modest multiyear investment, and it would have established the Center for Digital Learning to expand SRI's algebra program and create more digital learning projects in a partnership with USF. The SRI press release was written, and Pinellas legislators had no early warning from Scott's office that the money was in jeopardy.

Yet Scott chose to veto the $2 million sought by SRI and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, then waste untold millions on a new university that has been Alexander's obsession. The governor's decisions are indefensible financially and logically. They undercut the state's pursuit of more science, technology, engineering and math degrees. Even the rosiest projections show Florida Polytech growing to just 5,700 STEM students by 2026 at a cost of hundreds of millions. For far less money, the middle school algebra program quickly would reach tens of thousands of students. SRI's digital mathematics program has a record of success; Florida Polytech starts with nothing but hot air from Alexander, vacant land in Lakeland and architectural drawings for a campus more fitting for a Jetsons cartoon.

Scott argued in a signing statement that Florida Polytech fits within the State University System's goals and claimed it will not divert money from other universities. Those assertions don't square with reality, and they ring as hollow as his commitment to educating students in math and science. The governor embraced a monument to all that's wrong with state politics and rejected a better way to teach algebra to middle school students. It's clear which one would have yielded a better return on investment for Florida.

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