Originally published September 14, 2012
The Florida Current
Gov. Rick Scott wrapped up a week-long series of meetings with teachers, parents and students across Florida by inviting his political arch-rivals to dinner Friday night for a cordial first conversation about how to help students graduate from public schools ready for jobs or college.
“Tonight was a good first step toward having some dialog that probably should have happened a long time ago,” Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, said as he and about a dozen guests left the Governor’s Mansion. Their closed meeting with Scott, a Republican who has rammed controversial education reforms through the GOP-dominated Legislature, ran more than an hour longer than scheduled. Scott and Ford said the FEA will meet again with the governor next week.
“We’re not all going to agree on everything but the more we have a conversation, there’s a greater chance that we’re going to move the ball down the field for our kids,” Scott said.
After he and Ford chatted with Capitol reporters on the mansion’s front porch, Scott’s office issued a statement promising no cuts in education funding for the 2013-14 fiscal year. His administration cut $1.3 billion last year and put up $1 billion in new spending in the 2012 session.
“In our dinner tonight, I told the FEA that as we continue to develop our education agenda, we are going to at a minimum sustain current state funding for education in the next budget year and, depending on the state’s economic outlook, aim to increase education funding where we can improve student outcomes,” the statement read.
Ford said they did not discuss pending lawsuits the FEA has filed against Scott education policies, including a sweeping package that does away with teacher tenure and links pay raises to increased student performance. The FEA has backed Democrats in statewide races almost exclusively and has joined other labor organizations in suing to overturn such Scott initiatives as the 3 percent pension contribution for employees in the Florida Retirement System.
Teacher unions are also among opponents to a pending referendum on a constitutional amendment that would allow state money to be used for tuition vouchers at private schools, including church-affiliated institutions.
Scott said everyone he met while jetting across the state this week has agreed that student performance has to be measured. He said he also heard widespread concern about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is used to grade schools.
The governor said increasing school spending will depend on the growth of state Medicaid spending and whether the economy continues to improve, bringing in more tax revenue.
Scott said the three top concerns of Floridians he has met in 20 months as governor are education, jobs and keeping the cost of living affordable. Ford said the FEA has no quarrel with any of those goals.
“We need to sit down and talk about the issues and maybe we can avoid some of the pitfalls we’ve had in the past,” Ford said. “On the general principles, we don’t disagree very much. It’s on the details … who can argue that every kid should get a great education, that every family should be able to find employment, and they should be able to afford to live in the state of Florida?”
Terrie Brady, a leader of the Jacksonville Classroom Teachers Association and former chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, said Scott was “open to conversation, with no restrictions, very frank and honest. It was a step in the right direction.”
George Williams, head custodian at Lee Elementary School in Madison, is the lead plaintiff in the case pending before the Florida Supreme Court, aimed at knocking out Scott’s 3 percent pension fee.
“The governor listened tonight, he really listened. We’ll see what happens in the days to come,” Williams said. “I feel this was a very important step. It should have happened a long time ago, but we’ll take it right now.”