Scott recommends $1 billion more for schools; change in priorities could be tied to recent Immokalee visit

Scott McIntyre/Staff
FILE PHOTO Gov. Rick Scott talks about how taxes work with an economics class at Immokalee High School in November 2011.  Scott acted as a guest teacher to various classes at Immokalee High School, Immokalee Middle School and Eden Park Elementary during Scott's sixth, 'Let's Get to Work,' day.

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Scott McIntyre/Staff FILE PHOTO Gov. Rick Scott talks about how taxes work with an economics class at Immokalee High School in November 2011. Scott acted as a guest teacher to various classes at Immokalee High School, Immokalee Middle School and Eden Park Elementary during Scott's sixth, "Let's Get to Work," day.

Rick Scott, Florida Governor

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Rick Scott, Florida Governor

Video from NBC-2

TALLAHASSEE — At some point between this February and Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott decided to make education spending a priority in Florida.

His daylong stint teaching students in Immokalee — viewed by some as a press stunt — might have been the turning point.

Earlier this year, Scott proposed $3.3 billion in cuts to education, an antagonizing blow for educators across the state. And before Wednesday, when Scott unveiled a slimmer state budget that nonetheless found space for a $1 billion education investment, many teachers and school officials were still Scott skeptics.

But recent visits to several Collier schools appear to have doused the Republican governor with cold realities of education and its importance for the state's workforce, Southwest Florida educators said.

"I believe it made a tremendous impression on him in terms of what schools are doing, what they'd like to be doing and what it will take to get there," said Vernon A. Pickup-Crawford, who lobbies for school districts across the state, including Collier County.

In the state capitol Wednesday, Scott recommended cuts to corrections, Medicaid and public jobs as part of a $66.4 billion state budget that is $4.6 billion tighter than the current one.

Local Republican legislators lauded the budget, which is only a first step. Any government spending and revenue must pass through the Legislature early next year.

Some of Scott's greatest recommended money savings come from changes to Medicaid reimbursement, which suggest crediting health-service providers at consistent rates based on average costs.

"Seeing innovative ideas is very refreshing," said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, who is vice chair of the Health and Family Services Policy Council.

Some hospitals could lose on the deal, and others may see no change in reimbursement rates, said Tarren Bragdon, a conservative health care policy expert based in Naples. But he said "the impact on patients should be minimal."

Scott's budget also recommends slashing 4,500 state jobs, most of them in the prison system.

The reductions clear a path for education, Scott said. His budget puts dollar figures to a new turn in his rhetoric that has stressed science and technology workforce training.

In October, Scott pushed his legislative jobs agenda against the academic backdrop of a two-year vocational school in Immokalee.

Then in November, he returned to Immokalee, this time to take the place of primary- through- secondary school teachers of various disciplines. For the entire school day, he taught the teachers' lesson plans, booting reporters out of the room after the first five minutes of each class.

During the lunch hour, he barely touched his food as he justified the state's austere treatment of schools to several middle school teachers packed into the room.

A teachers union spokesman called the visit a sham, but many of the people in the Immokalee schools that day seemed to believe the governor's words were genuine.

"If you have ideas — I'm not an educator by training — this is the time to try to make change," Scott told them.

Crediting such statewide input Wednesday, Scott took an early stand.

"I will not sign a budget from the Legislature that does not significantly increase spending for education," he said.

Pressed by reporters for specifics, he did not define what he considered a "significant increase."

Under Scott's proposal, Collier County Public Schools' share of new money would be $9.3 million — $118 extra per student.

"His message has changed," Collier Superintendent Kamela Patton said. "Hopefully we were able to help play a part in his understanding."

Noticeably, Scott's recommendation avoids sparking a skirmish over employee pension contributions. In early drafts of his legislative priorities, he had talked about reining in the "windfall" municipalities and schools were socking away from 3 percent employee pension payments.

By not trying to reclaim that money to fund the pension system, Scott could spare localities additional losses. For Collier County schools, it means perhaps another $12.5 million annual savings next year.

Not everyone is likely to be happy with the proposal, including state workers groups and Democrats.

"Pitting one critical priority against another is not the solution Floridians expect from the leader of the fourth-largest state in the nation," said Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, of Weston. "School books-versus-seniors or teachers-versus-public safety should not be among the options."

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, applauded the proposal but emphasized the Legislature's authority, calling the budget a "starting line."

"I think his focus on education appropriately blends his priorities for the economy," Richter said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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