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2018 Florida Governor's Race: Dems Focus On K-12 Funding, Republicans On Career Training

Emily Michot
Miami Herald
Increasing funding for K-12 public schools is a top priority for the Democratic candidates for governor.

About a quarter of Florida's nearly $90 billion state budget pays for public schools. The Democrats running for governor say that's not enough.

"We can never spend enough," former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine said during the first gubernatorial primary debate in April. His opponents for the Democratic nomination largely agree.

On the Republican side, the candidates have focused more on career training as their education priority.

Democratic and Republican voters will choose their candidates for November's gubernatorial elections on Aug. 28, and education — as always — is one of the biggest issues.


Levine and Orlando entrepreneur Chris King are businessmen, and they've stressed the importance of strong public schools in powering the state's economy.

Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham has said the state's spending on public education is much less now compared to where it was more than 20 years ago, when Democrats like her father — former Gov. Bob Graham — were in office.

Palm Beach County real estate developer Jeff Greene, who operates his own private school, thinks Florida needs more money for pre-school and technology in classrooms.

"We're gonna invest in our kids, ... in our future," he said during a recent interview with WLRN.

Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum has offered up one of the most specific campaign promises for education funding during the cycle.

"I'm the only one who has stood up to demand that we make sure that new teachers earn a starting salary of $50,000 a year," Gillum told WLRN this spring. In South Florida, starting teachers make around $40,000.

Gillum's promise came up recently when he visited adjunct professors from around the state at Miami-Dade College.

Broward College adjunct Carolina Ampudia asked why only K-12 teachers should get higher pay. She pointed out that full-time teachers get benefits, and many earn more than twice the income of adjunct professors.

"If you compare their situation with us, they're in heaven," she said.

Gillum assured her that colleges are among his priorities, too.

"The teaching profession — whether it's at the K-12 or the community college or the university level — should not be a sacrifice of your quality of life," Gillum said.

Ampudia's question highlights a difference that has emerged along party lines in the governor's race so far.


While Democrats have focused on funding for elementary, middle and high schools, Republicans have talked more about helping people learn trades — both in high school and at community colleges.

"Today, liberal elites look down on people who work with their hands," Agriculture Commissioner and Republican candidate Adam Putnam said in a campaign ad, arguing that bias has led to a student debt crisis. "I'll make vocational training a top priority."

Putnam's opponent for the GOP top spot, Congressman Ron DeSantis, has also proposed bulking up career and technical education. That's aligned with the priorities of his biggest ally, President Donald Trump.

Trump recently visited Tampa to highlight a technical school there — and hold a rally for DeSantis. The president called him a "tough, brilliant cookie," and told a cheering crowd that DeSantis would be Florida's next governor.

Overall, the Republican race has been less about state policy and more about national politics.

DeSantis made the only mention of education in the first GOP debate in June, pledging to reform the state's education system by opposing the use of the Common Core standards. The curriculum guidelines dictate what students learn in math and english in each grade; the standards were adopted in most states, including in Florida during the Scott administration. Here they were later tweaked and rebranded the Florida Standards.

Putnam is a centrist on school funding.

"The vast majority of our students are in a traditional public school, and we need to make sure the resources are following those students," he recently told Miami's WPLG, noting that he went to public schools, and so did his kids.

But either Republican candidate would support the Republican-led legislature's agenda of promoting charter schools and vouchers.

During an interview with Tampa TV station WTSP, DeSantis said his priority is "empower[ing] parents to make the decision that's best for their kids." That could mean public schools, charters, or homeschooling, he said.

A recent campaign ad from DeSantis featured him doing some home-education with his young daughter.

"He's teaching Madison to talk," DeSantis' wife, Casey, says in the ad.

Then it shows DeSantis urging his daughter to repeat after him, saying: "Make America great again."

The winners of the primary will face off Nov. 6.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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