Gov. Rick Scott's private meeting with Jeb Bush irks parent activists, Democrats

The private huddle comes at a time when Gov. Scott must make several key decisions about Florida’s public education system.
The private huddle comes at a time when Gov. Scott must make several key decisions about Florida’s public education system.
Published Aug. 30, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — After failing to show up at the three-day education summit he convened in Clearwater this week, Gov. Rick Scott held a private meeting in Miami on Thursday night to discuss the future of Florida's schools.

The guest list: former Gov. Jeb Bush, state Sen. John Thrasher and state Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand.

The dinnertime meeting was cloaked in extraordinary secrecy. Scott's schedule did not list a location other than "Miami, FL," and his chief spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers, couldn't provide any other details.

That infuriated parent activists, who said Scott shouldn't have called three dozen education leaders to Clearwater if he intended to make decisions with a small group of advisers out of the public eye.

"This is how education reform gets done in Florida," said Rita Solnet, founder of the advocacy group Parents Across America. "The summit was a façade. The real decisions have always been made by Jeb Bush."

Bush, who has played a dominating role in determining Florida's education policy for nearly two decades, declined comment through a spokeswoman. Chartrand and Thrasher did not return calls for comment.

The Scott-Bush huddle comes at a time when Scott must make several key decisions about Florida's public education system.

Among them: what to do about the controversial new standards known as the Common Core. The national benchmarks outline what children should know at each grade level, but stop short of suggesting specific reading lists, text books or lesson plans.

The Common Core puts Scott in a political quandary.

Powerful Republicans, including Bush and Thrasher, are strong supporters of the new standards. But tea party groups consider the Common Core a federal overreach, and are calling for Florida to establish its own benchmarks.

The opposition intensified on Thursday, when state Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, filed a bill that would stop schools from using the standards until the public can weigh in. The Sarasota Republican Party also launched an online petition aimed at putting an end to the Common Core in Florida.

Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said the governor called the Clearwater summit to have an "an honest discussion" about the standards, as well as the new tests that will accompany the benchmarks.

Participants in the summit also addressed the growing backlash over the school grading system.

Scott didn't attend. It was not until Thursday — the day after the summit ended — that the private meeting with Bush, Thrasher and Chartrand appeared on the governor's daily schedule.

The gathering was more remarkable for the presence of Thrasher, a powerful St. Augustine Republican who has a much stronger political bond with Bush than he does with Scott. Thrasher was House speaker during Bush's first two years as governor and enthusiastically pushed through Bush's A-plus school accountability plan.

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Thrasher also has been the subject of speculation that he could be Scott's next lieutenant governor — an idea Thrasher has called a "media rumor."

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said he wasn't surprised Scott would consult Thrasher.

"I don't suspect they are cutting some kind of deal," Legg said. "I think John Thrasher has been around since the days of Abraham Lincoln, and he's going to give his opinion on what's happening."

Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who attended the Clearwater summit, agreed.

"The governor is really focusing on education now," Galvano said. "It makes sense that he would continue to have conversations about it, especially with the people who were at the helm when the (school accountability system) first went into effect."

Others were more skeptical.

The Florida Democratic Party called the backroom meeting "pure re-election chicanery."

Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat who sits on the Senate Education Committee, said Scott would have been better off making the trip to Clearwater.

"To get a summary of what happened and then go behind closed doors — that doesn't smell right," he said.

Exclusive meetings are nothing new for Bush and Thrasher.

The two held a famous dinner at an Orlando restaurant in 1999. They used a paper napkin to sketch out a radical reorganization of the state's education system, including the replacement of the Board of Regents with trustee boards at each state university.