Gov. Rick Scott met with elementary school teachers and parents as part of a listening tour that could be as much an opportunity to hear ideas for future school policies as it is to repair his image on education as he heads toward a re-election campaign.
Scott will visit a school in Miami on Tuesday, and he'll be at a school in Pinellas County later this week. He'll be at Madeira Beach Fundamental, with a teacher roundtable beginning at 1:30. Then he'll hear from parents an hour later at 2:30.
Scott and the Republican Party of Florida have aggressively tried to promote Scott's education policy after a first year in office in which education spending was cut by more than $1 billion. The party has paid for ads with Scott talking about his second year in office in which $1 billion was added to education and how he wants to change student testing.
Now he's going to spend the week talking with teachers and parents, starting here at Pinedale Elementary School. Music teacher Gregg Gafford thinks he knows why.
"Publicity," he said. "He's trying to redefine himself on education because we were all displeased with the first year."
In one of the Republican Party ads, Scott says that there should be "no more teaching to the test."
Scott, a former hospital chain CEO who had never previously held elected office, wouldn't allow reporters in to the meetings to hear what ideas were being discussed. After meeting with teachers, he said the tour was about listening before he proposes ideas to reshape the state's standardized testing program.
"I will continue to listen and see what the right program is. Here's what we all know: measurement works," Scott told reporters. "Now, measurement's got to be fair, it's got to make sense. If we're going to measure something, we can't just be teaching to a test."
After the meeting, guidance counselor Collondra Reese said she didn't feel any better about Scott's education policy.
"Everything was approached from a business point of view," she said. "I can't say that it made me more secure about public education."
At least one parent felt better after meeting with Scott. Felicia Barnes, whose 6-year-old Trey is in a first grade special education class, said she was concerned after Scott's first year when school money was cut. But she said he seemed sincere in wanting to help.
"By his response from some of our questions, it's like it's the first time he's heard these things, so I'm willing to think that he's going to address these concerns," she said.
Scott's approval rating plummeted almost immediately after taking office and he has struggled to improve them. Also in his first year, he signed a bill that his predecessor, Charlie Crist, vetoed that creates a merit pay system for teachers while stripping new teachers of tenure. The teachers union strongly opposed it.
Scott also supported a so-called parent trigger bill that could have allowed the takeover of poor-performing public schools by private, for-profit charter school companies. Florida PTA and other parent groups opposed the idea, which was killed in the Legislature.
"Parents and teachers have made it very clear that they are much opposed to the direction the governor and the Republican Legislature have been going," said Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, who has already announced she'll try to challenge Scott in 2014.
She also questioned why Scott wasn't letting reporters into the discussions with teachers and parents.
"It needs to be out in the open, not behind some closed door where later on nobody knows what was actually said," Rich said.
Scott's office said he wanted the discussions to be more frank and felt it wouldn't be so if reporters were in the room.
The governor has made it clear that he wants to run for re-election and he wants to be seen as strong on education. A potential opponent -- Crist -- is also on television talking about education. Crist's ads are being paid for by his company, the Morgan & Morgan law firm, and aren't considered political ads, because he doesn't hold political office and hasn't announced any intentions to run for one.
"I want to take a minute to salute some real heroes: our teachers," Crist says in the ad. "Teachers are overworked, underpaid and for some reason never fully appreciated ... To all our teachers, you have our deepest gratitude. Thank a teacher today."
Morgan & Morgan has also plastered the state with billboards featuring Crist's image along with feel-good messages. Earlier Monday, Scott refused to speculate on whether Crist, a former Republican who many believe will seek a comeback as a Democrat, is positioning himself to run against him. He also refused to answer a question about why the Republican Party was running ads for him on education.
"You'd have to talk to the party," Scott said. When it was pointed out that he was in the ads, Scott said. "Call the party."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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