Charlie Crist has made education policy a centerpiece of his campaign, but it's also a wedge issue dividing two Democratic constituencies: teacher unions and black ministers who support school vouchers.
Crist made his choice clear Wednesday when he refused to heed the request of a major Panhandle civil rights leader, the Rev. H.K. Matthews, who asked the Democrat to "publicly denounce" a new teacher union-led lawsuit that seeks to dismantle the major school-choice program.
"You cannot stay silent on this lawsuit," Matthews wrote. "These families deserve to know if you support or oppose the lawsuit to evict 70,000 poor — and mostly minority — children from their schools."
Asked about Matthews' request to call on the unions to drop the suit, Crist said, "I'm not going to do that. They have the right to sue for that if they want to."
Matthews said Crist's response left him "disappointed" because he recalled standing with Crist at the state Capitol in 2010 when the then-Republican governor expanded and pledged to support the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits to underwrite private education.
Now Crist is standing by a lawsuit that could undo that very program, which uses about $358 million this year — a figure that will grow to $447 million next year.
From the Panhandle to South Florida to Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, influential African-American ministers help run or are affiliated with private schools that accept students who receive the vouchers targeted by the lawsuit, led by the Florida Education Association.
Hillsborough has more than 3,000 children in the program — the fifth-most in the state — followed by Pinellas County, with 2,500 students. Most are minorities.
Crist "runs the risk of estranging black voters who would otherwise vote for him," said Matthews, who has a Pensacola park named after him and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"He won't lose my support," he said. "But there are parents who would be greatly concerned about this. And they might stay home instead of vote for him."
Crist needs a large African-American turnout to beat Gov. Rick Scott this November. The two essentially are tied in the polls, but Scott — who has condemned the lawsuit — is better funded and organized.
Crist is relying on union get-out-the-vote muscle and money — including a $500,000 check from the National Education Association to his political committee last month.
Earlier this summer, the statewide teachers union filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program.
The unions say the program violates state constitutional language that calls for "uniform" public schools and that says state money can't "directly or indirectly" be used to fund religious institutions.
A similar strategy helped persuade Florida courts in 2002 to strike down the original school voucher program, which was funded directly from the state budget — unlike the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
The voucher issue doesn't just pit Crist against his past and his current supporters. It has long split the black community itself.
The NAACP, which has raised concerns about the voucher program, is joining the teachers union in its lawsuit. But the Urban League of Greater Miami has been one of the program's strongest allies, as have scores of prominent pastors from African-American churches.
Asked about the potential chaos and heartache that could be caused if voucher schools are closed, the NAACP's Dale Landry said the fault lies with state legislators and Scott, who have underfunded public schools.
"Parents wouldn't have to worry about this if the lawmakers just funded the schools properly," Landry said.
Crist also blamed Scott for the predicament, pointing out that public-school money was reduced by $1.3 billion in Scott's first year. But Scott has plowed more money back into education since and per-pupil spending is now almost as high as it was under Crist.
Scott has pledged another $1 billion boost next year and says test scores show Florida students, especially minorities, are doing well.
In Miami, one of the most influential black religious leaders, Bishop Victor Curry, says the program is a success. He worries that ending the voucher program will destroy the Dr. John A. McKinney Christian Academy affiliated with his church. About 120 of the nearly 130 students use vouchers.
In St. Petersburg, the Rev. Manuel Sykes said the issue puts him in a "double bind." He's president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, which opposes vouchers. But he's also pastor of St. Petersburg's Bethel Community Baptist Church, which accepts vouchers at its small school.
"For me, that's a two-part thing," he said.
In terms of the election, Sykes said generally that the larger question is whether Crist "believes in the privatization of public education."
Crist said he doesn't believe in privatizing education. But he wouldn't say whether it was right to force kids in voucher school to re-enter public schools if the union lawsuit prevails.
"If that's the law, we have to honor and respect the law," Crist said.
Asked if that was a yes, Crist said "It's a yes if that's the law."
Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory and Tampa Bay Times staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report.