PONTE VEDRA, Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott kicked off a series of visits to Florida public schools Monday to promote the approved budget that includes teacher pay raises as part of a big boost in education spending, a perennially popular issue with voters who will decide in 2014 whether the Republican merits a second term.
"It's well deserved," Scott said about the raise during a visit to Nease High School. "According to Education Week, we're the sixth best state in the country for K-12 education. Our teachers are No. 1, according to the National Council for Teacher Quality."
It was significant that he returned to Nease three month after Scott chose the St. Johns County school to announce his initiative to give every teacher in Florida a raise.
"St. Johns County teachers work diligently every day to improve achievement levels and instill the value of lifelong learning for every student," St. Johns County Superintendent Dr. Joseph Joyner said. "We are very appreciative of Governor Scott's recognition of the importance of a strong public school system and the critical role teachers have in the future of our state."
Scott started his day at a raucous Piper High School pep rally, complete with marching band and the school's Bengals mascot, Scott mentioned politics only in passing and said the timing of his tour has to do with this being Teacher Appreciation Week. Still, it was hard not to notice the campaign-style surroundings, including a big banner proclaiming the event the "Gov. Rick Scott Teacher Pay Raise Pep Rally."
Scott credited Florida's rebounding economy with providing the resources lawmakers needed to increase education spending by $1 billion compared with last year. That includes $480 million for teacher pay raises, although not the $2,500 across-the-board increases the governor had initially proposed.
Under the bill that finally passed the Florida House and Senate, teachers can qualify for a range of raises developed by local school boards and they would take effect in June 2014.
"It's a great day for our teachers," Scott told the audience of mainly high school students. "Every one of us knows our lives were changed by great teachers."
The all-smiles event at Piper High stood in stark contrast to the criticism Scott received from Democrats, educators and parents' groups because of past billion-dollar cutbacks in education. Scott has struggled in public opinion polls, with a recent Quinnipiac (Conn.) University Polling Institute survey showing that 49 percent of registered voters disapprove of the job he's doing.
"Governor Scott's never-ending campaign continues. Governor Scott knows he has been a disaster for public education, our children and our teachers for three years," said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "The voters of Florida will not be fooled by Governor Scott."
Such criticism was in short supply at Monday's event in Sunrise. Robert Runcie, superintendent of the Broward County school system, said Scott "has shown to be a great friend of education" and praised him for pushing for the teacher raises.
"This state is moving in the right direction. We're thankful to the governor for recognizing that," said Runcie, whose school system is the nation's sixth-largest.
Scott urged the Piper High students to get involved in politics and even consider running for governor but "not in 2014." He even led the audience in singing "Happy Birthday" to Piper principal Enid Valdez.
"I'm not the best at this, but I'll start," he joked.
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