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Rick Scott, Education Champion: Looks Like 'It's Working'

May 10, 2013 - 6:00pm

Turns out Gov. Rick Scott's victory lap showcasing his successful efforts to increase pay for teachers across the state probably was brilliant political strategy.

Scott was all over the state this week, highlighting education and his fight to increase teacher salaries. Besides holding pep rally events to celebrate the pay raises, he managed to work his victory into statements on other education issues.

Celebrating National Teacher Appreciation Week, Scott found room to mention the pay raise.

Teachers are vital to the success of our education system and economy, said Scott. This is a great time to thank each and every one of them for their contributions in the classroom. We are also thanking them by making sure every great teacher is rewarded with a pay increase for helping their students make learning gains.

When he announced that Citrus County teacher Nancy Smith was one of five candidates to be Floridas teacher of the year this week, Scott talked about his efforts to increase teacher pay.

Florida teachers work hard every day to prepare our students for success when they leave the classroom," the governor said on Wednesday. I was happy to work with the Florida House and Senate to ensure that every Florida teacher, like Nancy Smith, can get a well-deserved pay raise.

When 130 Florida high school students won National Merit Scholarships, Scott managed to squeeze praise for teachers -- and why they need pay raises -- intohis congratulatory message.

Congratulations to all of Floridas top scholars for winning National Merit Scholarships, Scott said. Florida students' success is directly linked to our states great teachers. That is why we committed $480 million in our budget for a well-deserved pay raise for all Florida teachers. Its important that we reward our teachers for the success in Florida classrooms.

Earlier in the month, Democrats opened fire on Scott on education, with Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant taking aim at the governor. Tant knew she had to get out there and do some damage control before the governor racked up any more soccer-mom brownie points.

Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) Chairman Lenny Curry fired back and defended Scott.

While the Florida Education Association (FEA) supported Scotts efforts to increase teacher pay, the teachers unions have no intention of backing the governor as he seeks a second term in 2014. Looking to turn his polling number around, Scott is instead hoping that his increased focus on education will help keep parents in his column next year.

In pushing for increased teacher pay, Scott is betting that suburban parents might have doubts about education across the state while believing their childrens schools and teachers are excellent. Its not a political bet. Education reform efforts, including parent empowerment and teacher accountability, generally do well with the wealthiest and the poorest parents. Politicians who continually push for education reform can often draw the ire of parents convinced their children attend excellent schools with wonderful teachers.

If Scott needs a reminder of this political lesson, he can look to a member of his own administration, namely Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, who suffered a major setback in the 2012 election cycle in Indiana.

Simply put, Bennett ran far behind other Republicans in the Hoosier State in 2012 and his handling of teachers helped lead to his defeat. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney won the state in 2012 with 54 percent of the vote. Mike Pence, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2012, won office with 50 percent of the vote. Bennett lagged behind in 2012 with only 47 percent, sealing his defeat.

A political consultant well-versed in Indiana politics spoke to Sunshine State News earlier this year about Bennetts electoral defeat in 2012.

A lot of people were surprised by Bennett losing, the consultant said. Sure, he won by the skin of his teeth in 2008 but, remember, Obama carried Indiana and helped Democrats that year. Bennett badly underperformed in 2012. We all know the teachers' unions were out to get Bennett, but there were other factors. He lost a lot of support in the suburbs and rural areas who voted pretty straight Republican otherwise.

The consultant acknowledged that Bennett did better in urban areas in 2012. But those gains were more than offset by suburban and rural voters who offered greater support for Bennetts Democratic opponent in 2012 than they did in 2008. The consultant noted that Bennett lost a good deal of support on the I-69 corridor connecting Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. The consultant added that Bennett lost needed votes in and around Indianapolis.

Bennetts calls for school reform sunk with too many Republican traditional voters, the consultant said. They believe their schools are fine. They like their schools and their teachers and they thought Bennett was going out of his way to attack teachers. The teachers' unions really played that up and it worked to sink him. Bennett did better in urban areas where the schools are disasters but it wasnt enough to save him. Look at some of the suburban counties. Bennett ran 10 points behind Romney. A lot of his core voters were tuning him out.

Scott has apparently learned a lesson from Bennetts defeat. While he has no hopes of winning the support of the FEA and other teachers unions, he clearly wants to remind voters that he appreciates teachers -- and is thus trumpeting his successful efforts to pay them more. As re-election strategy, no doubt "it's working."

Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.

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