After eight years of Governor Rick Scott, Florida voters in 2018 will be looking for a change. One of the candidates hoping to take the Sunshine State in a new direction is former U.S. Representative Gwen Graham. Graham is one of five Democratic candidates all vying for the right to take on the GOP nominee in the Fall (The primary will be held August 28). It’s a crowded field, but Graham’s unwavering commitment and determined championing of the state’s public education system makes her stand out.
It’s no wonder the Florida Education Association, enthusiastically endorsing Graham this summer, called her “public education’s dream candidate.”
Here are five reasons why:
A Public School Champion at Work and at Home
Graham’s three children all attended public schools, where she was a regular volunteer and also served as a PTA president. As an attorney, Graham served in the administration of the Leon County school system. She won praise from school leaders for her consensus-building in labor-management relationships and negotiating contracts with teachers and educational support staff.
While serving in the U.S. Congress, Graham sponsored the Middle STEP Act, to extend technical and career education to middle schools and the Employer Participation in Student Loan Assistance Act to help students pay off their student loans.
School Funding Comes First
Graham says 20 years of GOP rule in Florida – starting with Jeb Bush in 1999 – has left the state’s public schools “resource-starved.” The budget cuts and privatization schemes that that were hallmarks of Bush’s tenure continued under Rick Scott. Scott’s legacy, says Graham, is the chronic underfunding of Florida’s schools that has hurt not only students, but also the economy and the entire state. Education funding in the state, when adjusted for inflation, still has not topped pre-recession levels.
“As governor, I will ensure public schools are given the financial resources they need to succeed. I believe public schools come first, as does their funding,” says Graham, who has also called on lawmakers to stop raiding the state lottery system. Established in 1986 ostensibly to help fund schools, the lottery’s profits have instead largely been used to replace state funds, not enhance education in the state. Ending this “lottery shell game” will be one of Graham’s priorities if elected governor.
Rolling Back School Privatization
When it comes to describing the outsized influence of the privatizers who have brought unaccountable charter schools and private school vouchers to Florida, Graham doesn’t mince words: “Tallahassee is bought and sold by the education industry.”
Florida has seen almost unfettered charter school expansion under Rick Scott and no other state in the nation spends more on private school vouchers – all at the expense of public schools. Scott has also gone to great lengths to shield charters from accountability, supporting a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would allow entities other than school boards to “operate, control, and supervise” public schools – essentially a greenlight for charter operators to open even more charter schools in the state. Graham is a vocal opponent of the amendment.
“I don’t believe we need to be giving more flexibility for charter schools. We need to rein in the for-profit charter schools that have started taking over the state,” Graham explains.
Less Testing, More Learning
Graham believes the overuse of standardized tests in Florida for high stakes decisions has shortchanged students in Florida for far too long. Testing is big business in Florida, where the staggering number of tests – 3.6 million statewide in 2017 – has triggered a backlash among parents, students, and educators.
“We all agree there’s an appropriate role for testing, to measure a student’s growth, but the current scheme benefits the for-profit education industry, not our children,” Graham says. “We need to be getting public education back to the joy of learning.”
Paying Teachers What They’re Worth and Letting Them Do Their Jobs
Florida’s 174,000 teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. The average salary in the state is $48,000 (with an average of 11 years of experience), $12,000 less than the national average. Graham has promised that, if elected governor, she will increase teacher salaries to “attract and retain the very best talent in Florida’s public schools.”
During her campaign, Graham has listened to educators around the state, holding a series of roundtable discussions to hear their ideas on improving Florida’s schools.
“Working in schools across Florida, I have seen the dedication our teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff bring to caring for our children every day,” Graham says.”It’s not just a job for them. It’s a mission to educate and equip the next generation with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. …We’re going to place parents, teachers and local educators back in charge of our public schools.”