By Kathleen McGrory
Gov. Rick Scott is in a tight spot with teachers.
To score points with rank-and-file educators, Scott has made $2,500 pay raises for classroom teachers a top budget priority. But to stay in their good graces -- and possibly win their votes in 2014 -- Scott will need to bat down a number of education proposals moving through the Florida Legislature, including the hot-button "parent trigger" bill and a pitch to increase facilities funding for charter schools.
There's just one problem. Opposing those bills will land Scott in the doghouse with Republicans and put him at odds with former Gov. Jeb Bush, whose nonprofit foundation has driven Florida's education agenda for more than a decade.
What's a governor with sagging poll numbers to do?
"He can't do everything the teachers' union wants or he would lose support among Republicans," said Brian Peterson, a Florida International University professor and editor of The Miami Education Review, an online newsletter. "But he is going to have to take a more moderate stance on education issues."
In recent weeks, Scott has initiated a dialogue with the statewide teachers' union, the Florida Education Association. Insiders say members of the governor's staff attend regular meetings at union's Tallahassee headquarters -- a noteworthy fact, considering the lack of a relationship until this point.
The raises are also significant, not only because of the $480 million price tag, but because Scott has proposed distributing an equal amount to each classroom teacher in Florida. Republican lawmakers have said they would rather see the raises distributed based on merit, but teachers are fiercely opposed to the idea.
Some observers see Scott's proposal to award across-the-board raises as a blatant overture to the teachers' union. The governor has historically been a strong advocate of performance pay. In fact, the first bill he signed into law laid the groundwork for the expansive merit-pay system for teachers set to kick in next year.
Scott faces an uphill battle in getting the Legislature to approve the across-the-board increase.
Last week, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Destin, told reporters his "preference would be that there'd be some recognition and reward for teachers who stay late on tough challenges and get learning gains, as opposed to treating the best teacher in Florida the same as you would treat the worst teacher in Florida."
Still, teachers such as Jodie Martin say they appreciate the sentiment, especially when coupled with Scott's promise to increase spending on classroom supplies and professional development.
"I've been a teacher for nine years and I've never really had a raise," said Martin, a fifth-grade teacher at Medart Elementary School in Wakulla County. "Any increase would help."
Will more money be enough to win over Florida's 170,000 schoolteachers?
Jeff Wright, the Florida Education Association's director of public policy advocacy, says no -- especially during a legislative session that could see the expansion of charter and virtual schools.
One proposal is the so-called parent trigger. It is especially loathed by the union because it would enable charter-school companies to take over failing public schools.
"You can't just buy teachers with $2,500," Wright said. "Our members are going to look to see where the governor stands on charter schools, on the trigger, on merit pay. Then, we'll decide whether to support him."
Some observers believe signing those bills would undo any political capital amassed by spending $480 million on teacher salaries.
"He's going to have to be very careful about what he opposes at the end of session," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "He knows he can't keep kicking public education around and have a positive public opinion."
But Bush and the powerful school-choice lobby will put pressure on Scott, too. Already, Republican leaders have signaled that expanding choice will be a top priority. House Speaker Will Weatherford, for example, designed an education subcommittee to focus specifically on "choice and innovation."
What's more, supporting charter and virtual schools could win over some teachers.
"Ultimately, what is going to cause teachers to move closer to the governor is his doing things that allow them to more be innovative and creative," said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up for Students, a nonprofit organization that supports the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. "Charter schools, virtual schools and magnet schools give teachers that flexibility."
Scott isn't tipping his hand.
Asked where he stood on various education policies, Scott replied: "My focus this session is $2,500 pay raises for classroom teachers, increasing the funding for the debit card for teachers to buy supplies, the money for professional training, and the $1.2 billion overall [increase] for K-12 education."
Pushed specifically on the parent trigger, Scott would not say whether he might veto the bill.
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who sits on several House education committees, said he does not expect the governor to take a strong stand on education policy.
"That will be left up to the Legislature," Fresen said.
The governor's most important bargaining chip may be delaying the merit-pay system. Teachers want the launch postponed. And some key Republican lawmakers, including Gaetz, have already said they could support a slowdown because deploying the new system entails deploying a new curriculum and student assessments.
Martin, the Wakulla County teacher, said she would be paying close attention.
"He's really reaching out to educators and moving education in the right direction," she said, noting that she could support Scott in a potential bid for reelection.
But Roxanna Elden, a creative-writing teacher at Hialeah High School, said she is skeptical.
"It's going to take a lot more for [Scott] to convince teachers that he cares about education," she said.
(c)2013 The Miami Herald