TALLAHASSEE -- It will take more than a listening tour to convince education advocates across Florida that Gov. Rick Scott is on their side.
They are wary and skeptical of the man they have seen mostly as an adversary for the past two years. Now, they wait to see what kind of policies Scott will propose for the 2013 legislative session and budget and whether his decisions will reflect their advice.
“We were actually thrilled when finally he realized that we are the right persons to go to when you’re asking about parents,” said Eileen Segal, president of the Florida PTA, who met with the governor a couple of weeks ago. “We’re hoping that this is only the first of many conversations.”
Segal said she is willing to trust Scott, but is waiting to see what he does.
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“We’re watching,” she said. “That’s all I can say — we’re watching.”
Scott’s first-year budget cut education funding by $1.1 billion. He waited eight months to visit a traditional public school while class was in session. He traveled to a Jacksonville-area charter school to sign his first bill into law — eliminating tenure for new K-12 teachers and tying their pay increases to students’ performance.
And this is a governor who has said he hopes to increase the number of charter schools and has advocated for more vouchers to allow students to use public funds to attend private schools — all while funding for traditional public schools has declined.
“I’m an elementary teacher, so I try never to close the door on anybody,” said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford. “Some day you’re going to see the light, and it’s going to click, and I think that may have happened for the governor.”
Scott’s office did not respond to repeated requests to discuss his education policies past, present or future.
The governor already has made some decisions, such as announcing that he will not support reductions in education spending in 2013. He also created a committee of seven county schools superintendents that will come up with recommendations to reduce regulations and paperwork for teachers.
But for now, Scott has left most discussions open-ended. He is listening, he has said, and the legislative session does not begin until March.
Linda Kobert, co-founder of parent advocacy organization Fund Education Now, said Scott should make a bold move early on to demonstrate that he is listening and acting in good faith. She wants him to come out against the “parent trigger” bill.
The legislation, supported by Republicans and charter school advocates, died in the Senate in 2012 on a tie vote. It would have allowed parents to turn low-performing public schools into charter schools, and its supporters have promised to bring it up again next year.
Scott supported the bill, calling it “logical.” But a coalition of parent organizations, including the Florida PTA, opposed it.
“If the governor were to come out forcefully and publicly in support of the parents’ position on that particular piece of legislation, it would go a long way for parents trusting that he has their best interest in mind,” Kobert said.
But state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, doesn’t think it’s time yet for Scott to take sides on hot-button issues. Detert, a former Sarasota County School Board member, opposed the “parent trigger” bill.
She said she thinks Scott should focus more broadly, coming up with a comprehensive education policy that defines his administration. She noted that former Gov. Jeb Bush and his foundation still have a prominent voice.
“Gov. Scott needs to put his own personal stamp on what kind of system that he wants,” Detert said. “Most of the ideas have been coming from a previous governor, so what we need is the current governor to let us know what his thoughts are.”
By virtue of his highly publicized education listening tour, Scott has heightened the stakes for his education agenda.
If he appears to acquiesce to unions and advocacy organizations too much, he could lose favor with the tea party activists who embraced him as an outsider. On the other hand, if the education community doesn’t see its thoughts incorporated into his plan, the recent goodwill could erode.
For example, Scott has said he would like to tie school funding increases to student achievement. Depending on the specifics, unions and school districts might balk at the idea that schools with more-affluent student bodies could get more money by virtue of higher test scores.
Scott also must overcome criticism that he is not serious about education policy, and he must deflect accusations that he is using teachers and schools as the first wave of his 2014 reelection campaign.
Already, the Republican Party of Florida has aired two television ads touting Scott’s commitment to public education.
And during Scott’s listening tour, a Tallahassee parent was rejected from a panel with the governor because she could not pass a background check. Scott’s office has since invited the woman to meet one-on-one with the governor next week.