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School days: Florida candidates differ widely on education

September 18, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Clashing on everything from private school vouchers to education spending, Florida’s two main contenders for governor have laid out vastly different promises when it comes to the state’s schools.

Republican Ron DeSantis, who did not lay out very detailed plans prior to winning the August primary, vowed Tuesday to expand the state’s private school voucher program while at the same time pledging to spend more on classrooms by making cuts elsewhere in the education budget.

DeSantis also wants to take a closer look at what the state is teaching in schools and what type of textbooks are used, even though the GOP-controlled Legislature has tinkered with this in the last several years.

“I think Florida has done some good things over the years,” DeSantis told reporters after he toured a middle school in the Tampa area. “We really need to build off that.”

DeSantis’s education proposals create yet another dividing point between him and Democrat Andrew Gillum in the race to succeed Gov. Rick Scott.

The Tallahassee mayor is calling for a proposed $1 billion increase in the state’s corporate income tax. He wants to use the extra money to boost starting teacher pay in Florida to $50,000 and bring overall salaries to the national average. He also wants to spend more on early childhood programs and on vocational training.

Gillum called the current teacher salaries a “disgrace” and an “embarrassing indictment” on the state’s current education system.

“This is an investment in our future and our state’s economy,” Gillum said.

Florida Republicans have controlled state government for 20 years and starting up under then-Gov. Jeb Bush put in place some of the nation’s first voucher programs as well as expanding the use of standardized testing in an effort to grade schools and teacher performance.

In the last few years, legislators have directed more financial resources to charter schools and have widened the eligibility for various voucher programs. Florida’s main program — which goes to low-income and some middle-income families — provides vouchers to more than 100,000 students, many of whom are minorities.

Republicans say the changes have resulted in improved academic performance, but they have also scaled back some of the testing requirements in response to criticism.

Gillum said on Wednesday that it was time to stop siphoning off public money into privately run schools. He said he would seek to bring the state’s current voucher programs to a “conclusion.”

DeSantis, by contrast, said that he wants to expand the state’s main voucher program, which is capped this year at $873 million but by law can grow 25 percent each year. The campaign did not provide any specific details, but DeSantis called the programs a “lifeline” to families.

The former congressman also ripped into Gillum’s tax proposal as “short-sighted” and said it would harm the state’s economy.

DeSantis’ classroom spending proposal calls for spending 80 percent of all education funding in the “classroom.” The proposal has echoes of the “65 percent solution,” a proposal first touted by many Republicans more than a decade ago.

His campaign said that they estimate that nearly 74 percent of education spending now goes directly into the classroom for teacher salaries and school supplies. Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for DeSantis, said raising it to 80 percent would put another $1.38 billion into the classroom. The campaign has not identified exactly what other parts of the education budget that they would cut to generate the money.

Joanne McCall, the president of the Florida Education Association, blasted the DeSantis proposal calling it “a political gimmick that other states have tried and abandoned.” McCall, whose organization has endorsed Gillum, also criticized him for wanting to “drain more dollars from the system that educates the great majority of our state’s students, and will send that money to unaccountable private schools.”

Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout

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