As campaign heats up, Gov. Rick Scott calls for boost to education spending

The governor’s race on Thursday turned into a contest to see who would spend more money on education.

Days after Democratic frontrunner Charlie Crist pledged to boost the education budget while touring the state in a yellow school bus, Republican Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a plan to raise school spending to a record high next year.

Scott called upon the state to spend $7,176 for each student enrolled in the public school system — a $232 increase over the current level and a $50 increase over the high watermark set in 2007-08.

The proposal was driven by the rebounding economy, Scott told the Herald/Times.

“If you look at what’s happening in our state, we’re continuing to see good job growth,” he said. “With job growth, our state revenues are continuing to grow.”

But critics were quick to paint the announcement as an election-year gimmick, in part because of the unusual timing.

In previous years, Scott has released his budget proposals weeks before the start of the legislative session. Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Tallahassee for another six months.

“We believe he can read the polls as well as we can, and he thinks this will give him a leg up with parents and teachers,” said Joanne McCall, vice president of the statewide teachers union, which has endorsed Crist. “But we have a long memory.”

Scott released similar plans to increase state spending on transportation and the environment earlier this summer.

The education budget has become a particular focus of this year’s gubernatorial contest, with Crist and Scott dueling for the votes of parents of school-age children.

During his three-day bus tour last week, Crist reminded Floridians that Scott cut $1.3 billion in education spending during his first year in office in 2011.

Crist promised to restore the cuts, but did not provide specific figures. He is expected to defeat former Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

Under Scott’s plan, the education budget would grow from $18.9 billion to $19.6 billion.

The numbers are based on revenue estimates from Aug. 7 that project $1.1 billion in growth above and beyond the previous economic forecast, according to the governor’s office.

House Education Budget Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said he believes the plan is feasible.

Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who sits on the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, agreed. “He’s right on target,” Simmons said.

Some Democrats, however, were skeptical.

“He said he wanted to expand Medicaid, too,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, of Fort Lauderdale. “He doesn’t have a good record of following through with these things.”

Both Crist and Scott have a lengthy political scorecard when it comes to education.

Crist was Florida’s newly minted Republican governor when school spending reached an all-time high in 2007. But he cut the education budget by about $800 million when the economy collapsed the following year.

He kept funding levels relatively consistent through 2010 with the help of federal stimulus dollars.

Scott came into office in 2011 proposing to slash $3.3 billion from the education budget. The Legislature approved a $1.3 billion cut — more than $1 billion of which was restored in 2013 when the economy improved.

“I walked in with a $3.6 billion deficit,” Scott said. “But as the economy turned around, I increased [education] funding every year.”

Scott has touted the 2014-15 budget for including the largest overall investment in education in state history. But he has continued to take heat from critics, who point out that per-student spending is still less than in 2007-08.

Democrats say that even his latest proposal for per-pupil spending would lag behind the 2007-08 level, which equates to $8,191 in 2014 dollars.

“No right-minded parent or teacher in this state believes Rick Scott, the same guy who cut K-12 education by $1.3 billion, cares about anything but holding onto power so he can keep giving away our tax dollars to corporations,” Crist campaign spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said.

School district leaders weren’t concerned about the politics.

Broward schools superintendent Robert Runcie said any boost in funding would help.

“If you compare Florida to some of the highest-performing states in the country, our per-pupil funding is really low,” Runcie said. “Not that money always equates to great outcomes, but at some point, you have to have adequate resources so that children can learn and districts can be competitive in hiring teachers.”

Runcie urged Scott not to ignore school systems’ capital needs, such as facilities and technology.

Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho said his district would also appreciate an increase from the state.

“It’s refreshing to see healthy political competition that elevates education policy and funding as a state priority,” he said. “It’s good to have this is an issue.”

Herald/Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

Education spending scorecard

Here’s how former Gov. Charlie Crist and Gov. Rick Scott compare on education spending.

Fiscal year K-12 budget (total) Per pupil spending

2007-08 (Crist) $18.7 billion $7,126

2008-09 (Crist) $17.9 billion $6,846

2009-10 (Crist)* $18 billion $6,846

2010-11 (Crist)* $18.2 billion $6,897

2011-12 (Scott) $16.6 billion $6,217

2012-13 (Scott) $17.2 billion $6,376

2013-14 (Scott) $18.3 billion $6,761

2014-15 (Scott) $18.9 billion $6,944

* The state received about $900 million in federal stimulus money.