TAMPA — Former Gov. Charlie Crist brought his school bus tour to Tampa on Thursday, blasting Gov. Rick Scott for cuts in public school funding as the two continued their battle over who has been more favorable as governor to education.
“The notion that Rick Scott would get into office and cut education by $1.3 billion is just hard to fathom; it's unconscionable,” said Crist, who's expected to be the Democratic nominee against Scott. “He doesn't care about the kids in our schools, he doesn't care about our teachers or the people that are driving the bus.”
Crist said cuts to the Bright Futures scholarship program under Scott, some 50,000 recipients, amount to “a whole university wiped out.”
Crist has been touring the state in a big yellow school bus, accompanied by his newly named running mate, Annette Taddeo.
“We're not putting education first,” Taddeo told the crowd. “We're putting big corporate interests first and lobbyists, not our kids.”
But Republicans have dogged Crist's tour at every stop, and went all-out in Tampa.
A small knot of volunteers showed up to wave signs and some heckled during Crist's appearance. Two costume-wearers -- a chicken and a duck -- taunted Crist for not debating Democratic primary opponent Nan Rich. And two state legislators, state Rep. Neil Combee of Polk City and state Sen. John Legg of Trinity, held a press availability beforehand at the site of Crist's event, Al Lopez Park.
Legg, a charter school operator and chairman of the Senate education committee, blasted Crist because he left the governor's office in 2010 instead of running for re-election.
“When Florida went through its worst recession, we had a leader who fled, who fled our students ... when things got tough.”
“Now things are getting better and he wants to come back.”
Asked about Scott's education cuts, Legg said they resulted from the recession.
“Charlie Crist led the way to a recession ... Rick Scott balanced the budget,” he said. Asked whether he meant that Crist caused the global recession, Legg didn't respond directly, saying, “Gov. Rick Scott has put $1 billion into education.”
Crist got to Tampa nearly two hours late because the big yellow school bus in which he's making seven stops in three days was delayed by minor traffic accident.
At a stoplight on Sand Lake Road in Orlando, a driver trying to cut around the bus clipped the rear, knocking off her side view mirror and scuffing the paint on the bus but injuring no one, said press spokesman Brendan Gilfillan.
Crist and Scott have fought an advertising war in which each claims to have boosted education funding while the other cut it and made public universities harder to afford.
Crist has been endorsed by the Florida teacher's union, the Florida Education Association, and members of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, the local union branch, showed up to cheer at his event.
In his first year as governor, Crist signed into law substantial increases in public school funding, raising it to a per-student funding level not seen since. When the recession dashed state revenues, though, he oversaw substantial cuts.
Scott, who took office in 2011, proposed major cuts in his first budget and signed into law smaller cuts approved by the Legislature, some $1.3 billion.
Since then, he has restored those cuts but still spends less per student than when he took office, even without allowing for inflation.
University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith Scott said Scott hopes “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.''
Crist's bus tour is in part to make up for having less advertising dollars than Scott with which to fight the war.