TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott and Charlie Crist are engaged in a major TV ad war over a deciding issue for many voters: Who’s the best candidate for Florida public schools?
In the ads, each claims to have increased funding for public schools as governor, and that the other recklessly cut it.
“Scott’s education cuts are closing that door on Florida’s kids,” Crist says in one of his campaign’s first ads, titled “Doorway,” which shows him standing at the door of a public school.
“No governor in Florida history invested more in education than Rick Scott. ... Crist cut education spending by $550 per student,” shoots back Scott supporters in the ad “Can’t Afford Crist.”
The truth, as usual, is more complicated.
Both Crist and Scott have signed into law funding increases for K-12 public education, and both have enacted cuts. Both have overseen tuition increases at Florida universities, and both also have vetoed tuition increases.
Neither, said University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith, has been a “champion of public education,” but overall, Crist has been friendlier to schools, and that may be what worries Scott.
“Crist has a leg up in the argument,” Smith said. “Scott’s trying to establish equivalency between the two of them, to take the issue off the table so people won’t see it as a reason to vote for Crist.”
In his first year as governor, 2007, Crist substantially increased school funding, but he and the Legislature later cut it sharply when the global economic meltdown decimated state revenues. Crist now promises more increases if he’s elected.
Scott, who ran as a tea party champion in 2010, sought massive education cuts his first year even as state revenues were rebounding. The Legislature agreed to smaller cuts. After his job-approval ratings tanked, Scott oversaw funding increases that more than make up for those cuts.
Overall, the claims in Scott’s ads depart further from the actual record. Some key points:
♦ It’s true, as Scott’s ad claims, that the budget he signed this spring included record total public education spending. But education spending goes up most years, as the number of students goes up.
By a more important measure, per-student spending, Scott’s “record spending” is still significantly less than the peak reached under Crist in 2007-08, even without considering inflation. Further, Scott achieved his record in part with a $400 million increase in property taxes that the state now requires local school districts to impose, rather than with state appropriations.
♦ It’s true, as Crist’s ad says, that Scott cut Bright Futures scholarships for Florida universities in half, according to figures compiled by the Florida College Access Network. But it’s also true that sharp increases in tuition over the last several years began under Crist.
Scott ended the large increases, though not until two years after taking office.
Through both governor’s tenures, state budgets were formulated by a Legislature dominated by conservative Republicans who preferred cutting education over raising taxes. Crist, meantime, was forced to deal with the worst of the recession while Scott has governed during the recovery.
Here’s a look at two of their ads:
Title: “Doorway,” Crist campaign
Video: Crist standing outside the door of a school building; scenes of students in hallways and classrooms.
Text (Crist speaking into the camera): “This isn’t just a doorway to a school. It was my doorway as a public school kid to opportunity.
“And I want to make sure every child has that same chance for a better life. But Rick Scott’s education cuts are closing that door on Florida’s kids, spending almost two hundred dollars less per student than when I was governor and cutting Bright Futures scholarships in half.
“When I was Governor, we brought both parties together to open the doors of opportunity, not close them. And together, we can do it again.”
On-screen graphics: “Rick Scott Cutting Bright Futures Scholarships in Half”; “Rick Scott Is Closing The Door On Education”; “Rick Scott Spending $200 Less Per Student”
Title: “Can’t Afford Crist,” Republican Party of Florida
Video: Clips from Crist’s “Doorway” ad with responses from a narrator and on-screen text
Crist ad: “Rick Scott’s education cuts are closing that door on Florida’s kids.”
Narrator: “Really? No governor in Florida history invested more in education than Rick Scott.”
Crist ad: “Spending almost $200 less per student than when I was governor.”
Narrator: “When he was governor, Crist cut education spending by 550 dollars per student.”
Crist ad: “And cutting Bright Futures Scholarships in half.”
Narrator: “It was Crist who made college more expensive, by 15 percent every year.”
Crist ad: “And together, we can do it again.”
Narrator: “Sorry, Charlie. That’s what we can’t afford.”
On -screen graphics:
“Orlando Sentinel, July 23, 2014, “New Crist ad, same MISLEADING education claims”
“FACT: Rick Scott got record total funding for schools, more than any other Governor. Tampa Bay Times, 6/2/2014”
“FACT: Crist left schools in worse shape — $550 worse per student in state funds. Florida Department of Education, 2013.”
“FACT: Crist allowed college tuition to increase by 15 percent per year. Tampa Bay Times, 5/27/2009”
Analysis: Since Crist’s first year in office, Florida education funding has gone down and back up with the roller-coaster economy.
In Crist’s first budget as governor, passed in 2007 before the bust hit, per-student spending peaked at $7,126, a level not seen since then, according to the same Department of Education figures Scott uses to back up his ad.
During the bust, it dropped to a low of $6,501 in the budget passed in 2009, then climbed back to $6,567 as revenues began to rebound in 2010, Crist’s last year in office.
The 2010 figure is $550 worse than Crist’s peak year, but it’s not, as Scott’s ad implies, $550 worse than when Crist took office — the 2006-07 budget year, when per-student spending was $6,818.
The decline presumably would have been greater had not Crist, then a Republican, risked political capital to accept billions in federal aid under the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan. His support for the plan angered many in his former party, but the money likely prevented layoffs of thousands of teachers, according to the state Department of Education.
The 2009 budget Crist signed also included $2.2 billion increases in tobacco taxes and vehicle fees, passed by the Legislature to avoid even worse cuts. Scott left the increases in place until this year, but then persuaded the Legislature to roll back the auto fees, and sharply criticized Crist for imposing them.
In 2011, his first year in office, Scott proposed a massive education cut of $3.3 billion, or $703 per student. The Legislature balked, and Scott eventually signed a budget with $16.6 billion in school spending, including cuts usually reported at about $1.3 billion.
Some of that cut came from the end of the federal stimulus aid. State and local spending declined about $770 million.
It has since increased to this year’s $18.9 billion, 2014-15 budget , the “record spending” Scott boasts of, surpassing Crist’s peak year with its $18.7 billion in spending.
Per-student spending, however, is still lower than Crist’s peak year by a figure close to the $200 that Crist’s ad cites — though Crist’s ad doesn’t mention it’s also $370 higher than Crist’s final year.
University tuition is another complex story.
When Crist took office, Florida university tuition was at or near the bottom nationwide, according to the College Board, and higher education advocates believed the system was seriously underfunded.
Nonetheless, Crist vetoed a 5 percent tuition hike in 2007.
Lobbying by universities and business interests changed his mind. Crist agreed that fall to the 5 percent hike, plus allowing the Board of Governors to impose “differential” increases up to 15 percent a year for the big three research schools — the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and Florida State University.
When the economic bust hit, the differential increases were extended as an option at all schools. Increases of up to 15 percent were applied in 2009 and 2010 under Crist, and in 2011 and 2012 under Scott.
In 2013, Scott vetoed an increase by the Legislature, and this year he signed a bill ending the differential increases — while sharply criticizing Crist for allowing them.
Crist bashes Scott’s Bright Futures cuts, but doesn’t mention his own tuition increases.
When Scott’s ad says, “It was Crist who made college more expensive, by 15 percent every year,” it doesn’t mention that Scott did the same for two years.