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Crist Goes After DeSantis’ Public School System; Launches “Freedom to Learn” Policy Platform

U.S. Rep. and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist announces “Freedom to Learn” education policy platform on July 19, 2022. Brevard School Board member Jennifer Jenkins joined him. (Crist for Governor Campaign via Florida Phoenix)

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Democratic gubernatorial primary candidate and U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist launched an education-focused policy platform entitled “Freedom to Learn” Tuesday, harping back to his experience with Florida’s public school system and bashing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education views.

“I told you, I’m a public school kid,” Crist said at a Tuesday press conference in Tampa, previously stating that he attended St. Petersburg High School and ultimately was elected Florida Education Commissioner as a Republican in 2000. He was also a Republican governor and Attorney General before becoming a Democrat.

“My father was on the Pinellas County School Board. Two of my three sisters were public school teachers. I graduated from one of our great state universities (Florida State University),” Crist said. “It’s in my DNA.”

While Crist flaunted his connection to Florida public schools, many of his comments were directed towards DeSantis’ handling of the state’s education system, including criticizing low-level teacher pay on average and efforts to limit classrooms discussions on race and LGBTQ+ matters.

DeSantis says that his administrations education policies focus on “education, not indoctrination” claiming that there is a push to include so-called “woke,” meaning more progressive, curriculum into public schools.

“The conditions are not good. The pay is not right. Everything is wrong under Wrong Ron,” Crist said.

Among the crowd was Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins, who has been considered for his lieutenant governor, along with several other contenders.

Crist said that the first step to getting “on the right track” was to “take care of him,” meaning unseating DeSantis as Florida governor in the 2022 gubernatorial elections. Keep in mind that Crist would have to win the primary in August.

He then laid out some of his policy plans for education, such as investing “5.5 billion to increase teacher pay.”

The Florida Legislature has designated millions into increasing teacher pay over the past three fiscal years at the request of Gov. DeSantis, with a majority of the funding going towards raising the starting teacher salary to $47,500, and some money going towards raising additional salaries.

But the Florida Education Association, a statewide teacher union that supports Crist, argues that DeSantis’ pay increases have not done enough to raise the salaries of experienced veteran teachers.

Crist referenced this complaint during the Tuesday press conference, saying that “his (DeSantis’) salary compression leaves veteran teachers out to dry.”

(National Education Association research shows Florida’s average teacher pay at $51,009, ranking 48th in the nation, based on 2020-21 data.)

Crist also wants to make some changes as to how teachers receive healthcare options.

“We’re going to give districts the option of joining the state (health) plan and we’ll even pick up the tab — on one condition, however. Districts will have to take all of the money they currently spend on that — on their health plan, letting the state do it — and turn it into higher salaries for educators and non-instructional staff,” he said.

He said that teacher unions would have a role in determining the specifics.

“Now, this is an important point: I don’t want Tallahassee dictating how it’s done. You get into the nuts and bolts, that’s important. And so, I want that option to be between the district and the union — to solidify your strength,” he said.

Crist also suggested he would reinstate the Commissioner of Education as an elected position, rather than appointed. Florida Democratic lawmakers proposed legislation to do that during the 2022 legislative session, but the bill did not gain traction in the GOP-controlled legislature.

“I’m the last elected education commissioner in Florida history,” Crist said, who served as the top state education official in early 2000’s. “I think they ought to be elected again, don’t you? Wouldn’t that be nice?”

His education platforms includes other policy goals, such as raising per-student spending in the state budget — the NEA data show a per-student figure of $10,703 for Florida, ranking 44th in the nation — and recovering from academic learning loss due in part to the COVID pandemic.

While he did not reference or attack his main primary opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, he did remind the crowd of the “important” Democratic primaries occurring on Aug. 23.

“Don’t anybody forget about it. Make sure you vote. Tell all your friends to vote,” he said, still not mentioning Fried.

Fried has some similar education policy positions, according to her campaign website, including raising teacher pay and per-student spending. She also wants to expand programs such as Florida Bright Futures Scholarships and technical and trade schools.

Fried has criticized DeSantis’ handling of Florida’s school systems, particularly during COVID-19 and subsequent mask and funding controversies.

When the Florida Department of Education removed resources for bullied LGBTQ+ students from its website, Fried had the Florida Department of Agriculture fill in the info gap by posting such resources on her agency’s website.

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