As he campaigns for re-election, Gov. Rick Scott portrays himself as a champion of public education who has increased spending, befriended teachers and ensured Florida's schoolchildren will be better prepared for to enter college or the job market. His record is at odds with his rhetoric. In 16 years since Republicans took over the Governor's Mansion and began pushing major education policy changes, no governor has been so coldly calculating and cynical about what happens to Florida's traditional public schools.
From his first year backing steep budget cuts and nonsensical teacher assessments to his repeated favoring of private interests, Scott has all but ignored the state's constitutional duty to provide uniform, high-quality and free public schools. The state has its fourth education commissioner in four years. The governor's Board of Education has pandered to the tea party's misinformation campaign on the Common Core State Standards, and it has set the stage for a potentially disastrous standardized testing change this spring. This is not the work of a governor engaged in enhancing the state's investment in children but of a former CEO who treats education like an expense line to be managed and squeezed.
In four years, Scott has done far more to undermine public education than to support it.
A month after taking office, Scott unveiled a proposed state budget that called for cutting school spending by 10 percent, or $700 per student. Even the Republican-led Legislature balked before agreeing to a still-staggering $1.3 billion in cuts for 2011-12 — or $540 per student. Florida's public schools and their teachers have been struggling to regain their footing ever since.
The current school year is the first in which the state will spend more per student than when Scott took office, but it is still nearly $200 less than the high of 2007-08. More sobering, when adjusted for inflation schools now have roughly $356 less per student than in Gov. Charlie Crist's last year in office.
Scott notes a spending increase this year for the state's voluntary prekindergarten program — the first increase in his tenure. But spending of $2,383 per student is $17 less per student than the program received in its first year, 2005-06. When adjusted for inflation, the gap grows to about $450 per student.
Scott has approved changes to Florida's accountability system that have managed to breed further distrust and loathing from parents and educators. Months into his job, he approved a deeply flawed and unfair teacher evaluation system that Crist had vetoed a year earlier because it relied too heavily on standardized tests and ultimately judged many teachers on the performance of students they had never taught. Lawmakers have tweaked the law — which also eliminated school districts' ability to grant tenure to new hires — but the districts are still grappling with implementing "value-added models" in any meaningful way even as these assessments play a huge role in whether new teachers are retained or veterans receive merit pay. That's on top of the continuous changes in how the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test figures in school grades, making the ratings nearly meaningless.
When the furor erupted a year ago over the state's years-old transition to Common Core State Standards, Scott rashly abandoned the state's investment in a multistate, nonprofit testing concern that was writing Common Core assessments to replace the FCAT. Then the state Department of Education — whose administration of standardized testing has been highly problematic throughout Scott's tenure — handed the test-writing over to a firm that won't do extensive field testing in Florida before students take the exams this spring. Transitions are always tough, but Scott has only made it harder by irresponsibly pushing forward without regard to the consequences.
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Never mind that the vast majority of Florida's children attend traditional public schools. During four years in office, Scott's focus has been on helping privately run schools — from those private schools that take state vouchers to publicly financed charter schools — boost enrollment at the expense of public schools. He has fully enabled Tallahassee's penchant for regulating and assessing every aspect of public schools but failed to insist on the same accountability when taxpayers pay the bills at privately run schools. He signed laws making it harder for school boards to oversee charter schools and easier for the state's lightly regulated voucher program to expand without meaningful assessments of whether those students are learning. Three times Scott signed budgets giving charter schools that serve a fraction of Florida's students access to millions in construction money while not providing a dime for construction for 67 public school districts.
From the start, Scott's lack of interest in education has translated into four years of short-term crises and no long-term planning. Well-regarded Education Commissioner Eric Smith, a holdover from the Crist administration, was frozen out and left after three months. His successor, former Virginia Education Secretary Gerald Robinson, lasted a year before the state had yet another failure in administering standardized tests. Former Indiana Education Commissioner Tony Bennett was gone in six months after a controversy about a charter school grade in his previous job. Scott's current education commissioner, veteran bureaucrat Pam Stewart, got the job when the Board of Education skipped a national search. Scott finally appeared to engage in 2013, calling for $2,500 teacher raises and debit cards for teachers to buy supplies, but neither worked out as promised and Scott once again looked clueless about public schools.
A few months later, as Common Core came under attack, Scott called a summit of the state's education leaders at St. Petersburg College. Then he failed to show up.