The Frontrunners for Florida Governor Are Still a Question Mark But The Many Education Issues That Will Play Big in the Race Are Not
Updated, March 29, marks an important moment in Florida’s education history. In the summer of 1996, two individuals from very different backgrounds, a respected advocate for Miami’s black community and a wealthy white real estate developer with conservative political ambitions, received exciting news. Their proposal for a charter school, the very first in the state, had been approved by the Dade County school board. This approval coincided with a newly passed bill by Governor Lawton Chiles, which allowed for the creation of charter schools.
The founders of this new school, situated in one of Miami’s most troubled neighborhoods, were passionate about challenging the status quo they had witnessed in traditional schools. T. Willard Fair, the president of the Urban League, expressed frustration with the prevailing mindset that blamed students instead of teachers when a large majority failed to succeed in class. He believed that disadvantaged students were unfairly labeled as incapable, and advocated for a change in attitude.
Despite its eventual closure in 2009 due to financial and management difficulties, the approval of Liberty City Charter School marked the beginning of a significant shift in Florida’s education landscape. This shift was led by Jeb Bush, who became governor in 1998 after an unsuccessful conservative campaign, and continued by Rick Scott, the current governor who will soon complete his term. The state’s education policies have reflected the conservative wing of the school reform movement, focusing on removing obstacles that impede parental choice in charter or virtual schools, as well as financial barriers that prevent lower-income families from accessing private education (Last year, the state allocated over $1 billion in scholarships for private schools, according to the Orlando Sentinel).
In addition to these reforms, Florida lawmakers have also introduced merit pay for teachers, evaluated schools and educators based on high-stakes tests, and eliminated social promotion. However, there has been opposition to standardized testing, resulting in a reduction in the number of required tests.
Aside from education, other issues such as taxes, healthcare, and affordability will also divide the political landscape as the campaign to succeed Governor Scott unfolds. With the upcoming midterm election, in which Scott is expected to run against Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson for a Senate seat, the race is considered highly competitive. According to a February Gravis poll, no Republican candidate has garnered support from more than 19 percent of voters, while no Democrat has exceeded 13 percent. The complexity of Florida’s political landscape, with the northern region aligned with the Bible Belt and the diverse South Florida leaning towards blue, creates a unique set of challenges and opportunities for both conservatives and Democrats.
Democrats will likely benefit from the current political climate, characterized by an unpopular Republican president and a strong anti-gun movement led by student survivors of the Parkland school shootings. Their passionate opposition to traditional gun culture has become a powerful force in Florida politics, putting GOP leaders on the defensive. Although the outcome of additional weapons restrictions remains uncertain, the movement has succeeded in making gun violence a central issue in all Florida races this year and may attract new or disengaged voters.
Darryl Paulson, an emeritus political scientist and avid observer of state politics, believes that Florida is essentially a battleground state with a nearly equal split between Democrats and Republicans. This is exemplified by George Bush’s narrow victory in 2000 by a margin of only 537 votes out of over 5.8 million cast. With President Donald Trump’s approval rating at 41 percent in the state, and a significant number of people calling for his impeachment, the upcoming midterm election presents an opportunity for Democrats to make significant gains. This includes not only potentially winning the governor’s seat, but also taking control of the state Senate and other local and federal races.
It is worth noting that a Democrat has not been elected governor in Florida since Chiles in 1994, and the party has not held the Senate since 1992. However, Paulson argues that the current political climate favors Democrats in a way that has not been seen in the past 30 years. This favorable environment is expected to mobilize more funding and attract more candidates to run under the Democratic ticket.
In summary, Florida’s education system has undergone substantial changes since the approval of the state’s first charter school in 1996. Led by conservative politicians like Jeb Bush and Rick Scott, the state has embraced a school reform agenda that prioritizes parental choice, merit-based evaluation systems, and the expansion of charter and private schools. As the campaign to succeed Governor Scott heats up, education issues, along with taxes, healthcare, and affordability, will be key points of contention between the right and left. While the state remains politically divided, with both Republicans and Democrats poised to make gains, the current political climate and the strong anti-gun movement may give Democrats a significant advantage in the upcoming midterm election. Only time will tell how the state’s education system and broader political landscape will evolve in the coming months and years.
The gap in reading scores between white and Hispanic students in Florida is significantly smaller compared to other states.
Florida’s NAEP scores have shown improvement over the past 15 years, aligning with the national trend. While eighth-graders in the state perform similarly to their peers in reading, their math scores are lower.
Due to favorable charter school regulations, more than 300,000 students attend over 650 charter schools in Florida. Additionally, the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which allows businesses to provide scholarships by utilizing tax savings, has grown from 1,500 students in 2003 to over 100,000, making it the largest program in the country according to EdChoice, a non-profit organization that supports alternative school options.
Although a previous voucher program that directly funded schools, including religious institutions, was deemed unconstitutional by Florida courts, the use of tax credits has withstood legal challenges from the NAACP and the Florida Education Association, the main teachers union in the state.
Research conducted over multiple years has shown that Florida students who use tax credits to attend private schools perform similarly to their peers. However, there is a small positive effect on neighboring schools that must compete for students. Another study found that students who utilize tax credits are more likely to enroll in college, although the attainment of a degree is not guaranteed.
"I have a sense that these Parkland students will have a significant impact on the 2018 election. I’ve been in this field since 2006 and have never witnessed anything like this," said Kevin Akins, a Florida pollster.
The key issues
The upcoming gubernatorial campaign in Florida will revolve around several significant topics, including the state’s recently enacted gun safety law, comprehensive education laws signed by Governor Rick Scott in 2017 and 2018, and proposed amendments to the state constitution that will appear on the ballot in November.
In response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, lawmakers swiftly passed The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. This law raised the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21, implemented a three-day waiting period, allocated funds for school safety measures, and allowed certain school personnel to carry guns. The law was regarded as a rejection of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in a state that had not enacted gun control legislation in two decades and under a governor with an A+ rating from the NRA. However, the law drew controversy for not addressing assault weapons and expanded background checks, and for suggesting the possibility of shootouts in schools. As a result, education and gun safety remain focal points of the campaign.
"I have a sense that these Parkland students will have a significant impact on the 2018 election," remarked Kevin Akins, a Florida pollster. Akins is currently involved in Gwen Graham’s campaign, who was considered the Democratic frontrunner but has yet to gain a substantial lead. "I’ve been in this field since 2006 and have never witnessed anything like this."
Shortly after the shooting, Philip Levine, a prominent candidate for governor and former mayor of Miami Beach, proclaimed in a video that "the time to act is now." Levine also released an advertisement blaming the state’s lenient gun laws for "14 school shootings in eight years," a figure that Florida Politifact rated as mostly untrue.
Gwen Graham, a former U.S. congresswoman and daughter of Florida political figure Bill Graham, is aiming to lend credibility to her call for stricter gun laws by highlighting that her husband previously served as a police officer and that the NRA spent $300,000 to defeat her during a previous campaign.
Andrew Gillum, the other notable Democratic candidate and the Mayor of Tallahassee, stands out as the only African-American contender in the race. He is also the sole Democrat who resonates with young progressives who supported Bernie Sanders. Gillum has criticized the Florida gun safety law, stating that it falls short of effectively addressing the state’s gun violence problem.
Leading Republican candidates, such as Adam Putnam, the state’s agricultural commissioner with a campaign fund exceeding $20 million, and Congressman Ron DeSantis, who received an endorsement from President Trump, have voiced support for Governor Scott’s efforts to enhance school safety. However, DeSantis criticized the state for hastily restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens, while Putnam opposed raising the minimum age for gun purchases.
On December 22, 2017, President Donald Trump tweeted about the upcoming race in Florida.
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran is anticipated to enter the race. While he is well-versed in education policy and has championed recent education laws in the state, he is not widely known outside of Tallahassee, according to those observing the race.
In light of recent events, Manny Diaz, a South Florida Republican who played a key role in the legislature’s school choice initiatives, believes schools should be fortified and approached from a different perspective. Diaz visited the area of Stoneman Douglas High School where the shooting took place and had conversations with students who expressed their fear and concern for their safety, rather than focusing on gun control.
Jeffrey Solochek, an education reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, describes the students involved in the movement as both motivated and fearful. They are rallying people to engage in discussions and actions regarding education beyond the usual participants. Additionally, they are advocating for measures that would make their schools more secure, but these measures could potentially make schools feel like prisons.
The primary for the race is scheduled for August 28.
HB 7069, an education bill passed in July 2017, underwent a significant transformation in committee. Originally a six-page amendment, it was expanded into a 274-page comprehensive legislation that included numerous education proposals. The bill covers a range of provisions, from mandating daily recess (except for charter schools) to easing regulations for the establishment of Schools of Hope, a program that places charter schools near underperforming traditional schools.
One of the most contentious aspects of the bill is its requirement for districts to allocate a percentage of taxpayer funds reserved for capital projects to charter schools.
Nine school districts have filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the legislation violates a rule stating that bills should not bundle multiple items to gain greater support. The complaint was referred to the Leon County court in Tallahassee, the state capital, by the Florida Supreme Court.
HB 7055, which was passed in March, primarily focuses on expanding voucher programs. It provides additional funding sources for scholarships targeted at students who are bullied, have disabilities, or struggle with reading. The law also introduces measures to prevent unethical profit-making by charter schools in relation to school construction, following an expose by the Miami Herald in 2011. Additionally, it requires that at least 50 percent of eligible employees be dues-paying members of the local teachers union, with the possibility of union decertification if this requirement is not met.
The Florida Education Association did not respond to requests for comment.
Every 20 years, the Florida Constitution Revision Commission reviews and proposes amendments for the state’s constitution. Among the 25 proposals currently being considered, two are related to education. One proposal suggests implementing term limits for school board members, while the other establishes a state authority for charter schools, which currently operate under the control of local boards.
These proposals have gained support from commission member Erika Donalds, who was appointed by Richard Corcoran, as well as from national advocates. Polling indicates that approximately 80 percent of Floridians endorse term limits.
Bridgit Ziegler, chairwoman of the Sarasota County School Board and president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a right-leaning networking association, acknowledges the mixed opinions surrounding term limits. She personally does not support term limits, as she believes voters should have the final say. However, Ziegler recognizes that some board members who have served for extended periods of time may not effectively represent the interests of their constituents.
Political scientist Paulson suggests that an amendment restoring voting rights to released felons could also impact election outcomes. There appears to be grassroots support for changing the current law, which permanently disenfranchises felons and was deemed "fatally flawed" by a judge. An ACLU petition calling for change was signed by nearly one million Floridians, as reported by the Miami Herald.
Florida’s strict felony voting law affects up to 1.5 million people, disproportionately impacting African-Americans.
Paulson emphasizes that amendments tend to attract a larger voter turnout, influencing the results of other races as well.
Florida’s education initiatives appear to be distinct from the prevailing political climate. They have undergone gradual change over time. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a supporter of Florida’s reforms, has visited the state more frequently than any other, as reported by U.S. News & World Report.
John Kirtley, vice chairman of the American Federation for Children, suggested that the reason for the secretary’s frequent visits to Florida is the state’s significant progress in redefining the true meaning of public education.