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StateImpact: Why Education Is A Key Issue In The Florida Governor's Race

Neon Tommy via Flickr

Charlie Crist has to close a sale. The one-time Republican governor now wants to become governor as a Democrat. But he needs to convince Democrats he’s now one of them if he has any chance of challenging Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

It's why Crist is talking about his education record during the early days of the campaign - especially his 2009 decision to accept federal stimulus money. That money ensured teachers stayed on the job, Crist said at his campaign announcement earlier this month in St. Petersburg."I am proud of my record as your governor. Investing in public education," Crist said, before pausing.

"Education," he said again, to applause. "And stopping the layoffs of some 20,000 school teachers during the global economic meltdown.”

Crist, Scott and former Democratic state Sen. Nan Rich are using education to distinguish themselves from each other. Rich said both Scott and Crist support testing students and grading schools based mostly on the results of those exams - policies she opposes.

Scott has emphasized adding money to the K-12 budget over the past two years. That includes pushing to raise teacher pay this year.

"Listening to parents and teachers is still the best education," Scott said in a 2012 Web ad that kicked off a new emphasis on education amid poor polling. "That’s why this past year – together with Republican leaders – we put one billion more into our schools and classroom.”

Crist is talking about adding more money to K-12 budgets – and pointing out the budget cuts Scott supported his first year in office. The former governor is also talking about teacher evaluations.

“It sets up a stark contrast between the two," said state Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, an Orlando-area Democrat, who was a teacher when she launched her campaign.

Crist earned some love from educators when he vetoed a 2010 bill that would have evaluated teachers based mostly on student test scores. A similar bill was the first thing Scott signed into law in 2011. The law ends long-term contracts for new hires. It also requires districts pay teachers based on their evaluation rating starting next year.

The state’s teacher’s union is challenging the law in court.

Dentel says the evaluations are the top complaint she hears from teachers.

“It’s just all-encompassing, that it’s preventing a lot of teachers from actually doing their job, doing it well," she said. "And it’s making a lot of teachers who are the kind of teachers I want my children to have as their teacher, it’s making them reconsider their career choice.”

Dentel said teachers feel like they have to put on a performance for evaluators ticking off a checklist of classroom practices. She said teachers want a candidate who proves they’re listening. 

Teachers are a valuable constituency for any candidate. That’s because teacher’s unions can help raise money and supply volunteers to knock on doors and spread the word.

Usually, they support Democrats. University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said Crist knows that and that education is a good issue for him.

“It is absolutely, unequivocally, clear that Charlie Crist is aiming for the teacher’s vote and the teachers’ union vote and a lot of the parents of school children’s vote," MacManus said.

But MacManus said education is unlikely to be the most important issue during next year’s election. Schools will still take a backseat to the recovering economy.

“Over two-thirds of Floridians do not have a child in public school," she said. "And it’s not as big an issue to a number of likely voters next year as some other issues, specifically the economy and so forth.”

Expect the candidates to talk about higher education, too.

Scott is proud he opposed raising tuition at Florida’s colleges and universities. Crist wants to increase lottery-funded college scholarships and offer free degrees to science and technology grads who promise to stay in Florida.