Gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist plans to make education the focus of his campaign, he said Monday.
To make his point, the Republican turned Democrat held a roundtable discussion with teachers in Tallahassee on Monday -– and then asked one of them to deliver his qualifying paperwork to the Florida Department of State.
"What this campaign is going to be about, first and foremost, is making sure we have someone in the governor's mansion [who] understands how precious education is and how important it is to honor our teachers and not demoralize the heck out of them," Crist said.
The thirteen teachers who attended the roundtable hailed mostly from the Florida Panhandle. They opened the conversation by thanking Crist for his veto of a controversial teacher performance pay bill in 2010.
Crist called it "an honor" to veto the proposal, SB 6 in the 2010 session.
"It was exciting," he said. "It got unexciting because the next year, Rick Scott signed the bill. But we are going to undo it."
Repealing the law would be a heavy lift. The Republican-dominated legislature has been supportive of performance pay for teachers, as have influential think tanks. But Crist said he would have bargaining power after winning office.
"If we win, they will consider things because I will have a [veto] pen again," he said.
Later, Crist blasted the turnover at the state Department of Education. "It's like a revolving door of idiocy," he said.
He also accused Scott of spending too little on education given the recent surplus.
The budget Scott recently inked sets aside $18.9 billion for education, the largest amount in state history. But the per-pupil funding level, $6,937, still falls short of the $7,126 spent per student in 2007-08.
"He talks about jobs all the time," Crist said of his opponent. "But he won’t lay the groundwork so people can get them."
Scott's campaign was quick to fire back.
"Most of us realize that no matter how many times you repeat a lie, you can’t make it true," campaign spokesman Greg Blair said in a statement. "Not Charlie Crist. The unfortunate truth for him is that he left K-12 schools in a worse financial position than when he entered office while Gov. Scott has provided record funding for schools and $480 million for teacher pay raises."
Blair added: "At this rate, Charlie Crist will soon try to convince Floridians that the earth is flat."
Crist has already won the endorsement of the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union.
Arecia Shelton, a guidance counselor at Fairview Middle in Leon County, said she would rally her colleagues to support Crist's bid for governor.
"You earned the respect of teachers," she told him Monday.