Florida's schools are facing a teacher shortage, fights over funding and questions over security since the Parkland shooting this year. The GOP's nominee for governor, Ron DeSantis, on Tuesday released his education plan, which addresses some of those issues but also injects new, highly charged political ones — like reviewing all state textbooks to ensure there's no "anti-Israel bias."
Democrat Andrew Gillum's running mate, Chris King, deemed the anti-Israel point a non-issue.
"The only way he defeats a visionary candidate like (Gillum) is to distract and to create division," King said of DeSantis while speaking to reporters outside Tampa's Plant High School. "This is not a problem. This is a distraction."
Education is always one of the most contentious issues every year in Florida, with yearly legislative showdowns between Republicans and Democrats over school funding and privately run public schools — with teachers' unions, school boards and superintendents also in the fray.
DeSantis' education proposal struck a deep contrast to the broad plan Gillum and King highlighted for the state on Tuesday.
A top priority for DeSantis, for example, is to require that 80 percent of all funding for public schools be "used in the classroom" in order to "cut bureaucratic waste and administrative inefficiency." That echoes a 2006 proposal that was part of a national movement calling for a 65 percent classroom spending requirement, which passed the Florida House but died in the Senate.
At the time, one of the nation's preeminent education policy experts, the late Gerald W. Bracey, wrote in a research paper published by Arizona State University that the 65 percent plan was more political than practical and that the data doesn't show such a shift would improve education.
Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins said how that would affect Florida schools would largely depend on how "in the classroom" is defined.
"There has to be clear analysis done when you talk about those percentages, what does that really mean and what kind of services can you count as classroom-based services?" Eakins said. "And how do you not challenge the operational part of the district that has to require busing and students to be fed?"
Eakins added that in Hillsborough, only about 1 percent of the staffing budget is for administrators.
Also visiting schools in Tampa, DeSantis said outside Franklin Middle School that his plan would largely include classroom supplies and teacher pay, which he also said should be "a bit more competitive" to help with Florida's teacher shortage.
"We basically looked at it and said we're probably at about 70 percent now and we want to get it to 80 and to me it means things … that actually directly affect the learning experience for our children. It would not include adding five new administrators of the Board of Education," he said. "That cannot be our focus."
Of the textbook review proposal, DeSantis also said that when he was a congressman, constituents contacted him to point out materials they felt were anti-Israel.
"I want to make sure we're getting just straight curriculum, particularly about the history and stuff like that," he said. "When I see some of the tests with really bad anti-Israel bias, that just bothers me that's not what we want."
While in Congress, DeSantis pushed for the U.S. Embassy to be moved to Jerusalem and some of his donors in the governor's race are pro-Israel mega donors, such as Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Gillum, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, has made raising teacher salaries a major pillar of his campaign, and has said there needs to be a minimum $50,000 starting salary statewide.
How would he pay for it? Legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana, as well as raising the state corporate income tax rate to provide $1 billion in total as a school funding boost. DeSantis has signed a pledge saying he won't raise any taxes.
Another major contrast between the two plans is on the subject of charter schools and vouchers, which have exploded in Florida in recent years.
DeSantis has proposed increasing the total amount that can be distributed for Florida's voucher-like system for low-income students, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. Gillum wants to pump the breaks on sending public funds to charter and private schools, though he has yet to expand on whether the state should scale back on those initiatives or just not create new ones.
"We have now siphoned away, repeatedly, year after year after year, into systems that are less accountable and less transparent," Gillum said in Tallahassee on Tuesday.
DeSantis has also repeatedly harkened on the campaign trail to the need for Florida to throw out the Common Core standards accepted by many states, as well as to require teaching of the Constitution in all classrooms. Yet Florida doesn't use Common Core. Instead it crafted its own state standards, which mirrored Common Core but also added extras like cursive and calculus. Civics education is also already required by law, which includes the Constitution.
At the end of the day, the politics of school materials and vouchers don't matter as much as one simple thing, said Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning, who served as the secretary of state under both governors Charlie Crist and Rick Scott:
"Bottom line," he said, "just give us money to pay our teachers."
Times staff reporters Kirby Wilson, Paul Guzzo and Jeffrey S. Solochek as well as Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.