At five schools in as many Florida counties, Gov. Rick Scott stumped the state last week praising teachers and the $2,500 raises he pushed lawmakers to include for them in the $74.5 billion budget.
But strategists say it’s far less certain whether the Republican governor will be able to cash in politically on the raises in his re-election bid next year.
Despite making teacher pay his top priority of the legislative session, Scott, like every Republican governor before him, appears unlikely to break the Democratic Party’s powerful bond with the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
“Nobody knows what he’s thinking with this strategy,” said FEA President Andy Ford. “It’s clearly all about 2014 and the governor’s race. Teachers welcome the raises. But that doesn’t buy forgiveness.”
Scott continues to take heat for 3 percent payroll contributions required in 2011 for more than 600,000 government workers in the Florida Retirement System, almost half employed by school boards across the state.
Scott that year also signed into law legislation ending teacher tenure and introducing a merit-pay plan based in large part how students perform on standardized tests. That, too, still stings, union leaders said.
The merit-pay standard is to go into effect next year. But the grading system that drives it may be accelerated in many counties, including Palm Beach, to allow the $2,500 raises to get to teachers in coming months.
Lawmakers initially planned on having the raises not available until June 2014.
Still, even many Republican-leaning teachers remain wary of Scott, said Sandra Maldonado-Ross, a Central Florida high school teacher and president of the FEA’s Republican Educators’ Caucus.
“They’re definitely appreciative of the raise,” said Maldonado-Ross. “But I think there’s a lot of suspicions about, ‘Why now?’”
The FEA has proved a potent force behind Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidates for decades.
When the late Bill McBride was running as the Democratic nominee in 2002, the FEA mortgaged its state headquarters to raise $1.7 million it then pumped into his unsuccessful campaign against Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
In 2010, when Scott was running against McBride’s wife, Democratic nominee Alex Sink, he rented out a Winter Park theater the weekend before the election for a showing of Waiting for Superman, a documentary that ridicules the public school system for failing millions of students.
Sink the same day was just miles away, speaking to several hundred FEA members at an Orlando conference. She opened her remarks by addressing them as “friends.”
At Scott’s tour last week, which included a stop at West Palm Beach’s Wynnebrook Elementary School, students and instructors crowded in around the Republican governor at carefully planned “pep rallies.”
Also noted by many speakers at the rally was another budget highlight: a second straight year with a $1 billion boost in school spending.
“It’s a great day for teachers,” Scott said at Piper High School in Sunrise.
But with his re-election campaign looming, Scott continues to suffer from abysmal poll numbers, particularly among women, middle-age voters and independents, who analysts say are most affected by education issues.
Polls show former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, would easily top Scott if the election were held today. Crist was popular with educators, even as a Republican chief executive.
But Scott is clearly working to change his hardline image.
Making it more complicated for the FEA to endorse his eventual Democratic rival or getting the union to ease back on the political firepower it puts behind his opponent would likely prove a major victory for the Republican governor.
Few analysts, though, see even that within his reach.
Still, they said maybe he can sway some voters in an election where fewer than half the registered voters are likely to cast ballots, compared with 72 percent in last fall’s presidential election.
“Fighting for teacher pay is a very popular move,” said David Johnson, a Republican campaign consultant. “Having a good education system squares with his push for jobs and improving Florida’s economy.
“It guarantees nothing. But he is able to say to parents and those who care about schools that he did all he could to make sure teachers get a raise,” Johnson said.
Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry said it’s wrong to look purely for political motives behind Scott’s embrace of teachers and more dollars for schools.
“He’s governing on behalf of all Floridians,” Curry said. “And Floridians care most about education and jobs. Anytime you do the right thing by your constituents, you will do well.”
The most recent, public statewide surveys on Scott took place in March, when both Quinnipiac University and Public Policy Polling found him trailing Crist by double-digits.
Only 36 percent of voters in the Quinnipiac survey approved of his job performance, compared with 33 percent in PPP’s findings.
But those results stem from early in the legislative session, which Scott turned largely into a two-month sales pitch for teacher pay.
Scott landed a modified version of another priority – elimination of the sales tax on manufacturers’ equipment purchases. But that hasn’t warranted the victory lap the governor has given teacher pay.
Scott has a model for appealing to union members through their pockets.
Bush, running in 1998, was endorsed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association and Florida Professional Firefighters Association after he supported a provision that fattened pension benefits for members, over opposition from local governments.
The unions had declared war on Bush’s opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, whose boss, the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, had vetoed identical legislation.
Ernie George with the Palm Beach County PBA, was president of the statewide union when it backed Bush. Still, he doesn’t see events breaking that way for Scott this time around.
“It’s apples and oranges,” George said. “We’ve always endorsed people who believe in strong law enforcement, whatever the party.
“But the teachers going for Scott? It’ll never happen.”