Charter school, voucher and online education companies poured more than $2 million into this fall's political campaigns, primarily those of Republicans who are again demanding more alternatives to traditional public schools.
But opponents also are digging in, led by the state's largest teachers union, which spent $3.9 million on campaigns.
A deeply ideological battle is expected to unfold at Florida's Capitol in coming months, with vast amounts of taxpayer dollars at stake. Republican Gov. Rick Scott's own political future also may be in play.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, talked of as a future GOP presidential contender, has emerged as chief cheerleader for the industry that flourished during his eight years as Florida governor and still helps finance a nationwide education policy think tank he leads.
"If you believe, like I do, that we need to move this ball down the field far faster, charter schools, vouchers, all sorts of alternatives ... are part of the answer," Bush said in November at his Foundation for Excellence in Education national conference in Washington.
"But once again, there will be massive pushback," warned Bush, a fierce opponent of teachers unions.
In Florida, a blueprint for expanding alternate education on several levels already is being rolled out.
Scott is promoting changes to expand enrollment in charter schools.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has promoted creation of an online university in Florida, a concept now being studied by state university officials, while he also has created a new education Choice and Innovation Subcommittee charged with exploring more charter-, virtual- and home-school options.
The panel's chairman, Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, sponsored legislation last year aimed at letting parents in low-performing schools call for a private-management company to take over. The "parent trigger" bill died on a 20-20 vote in the Senate. But it's likely to resurface this year.
Another benchmark was the selection last month of Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, who adheres to Bush and Scott's approach to what supporters call parental choice. Bennett is Florida's third education commissioner in two years.
Bennett, though, was turned out in November by voters as Indiana's superintendent of public instruction after clashing with teachers unions over voucher, teacher evaluation and school grading policies, similar to those enacted in Florida during the Bush years.
"Sometimes, it seems that Bush is still the manager of all that's still going on in Florida," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.
"These policies are part of his political past. But now they also could affect how credible he is in the future," Ford added.
The union and several parent groups say the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that go to charter schools, online efforts and to the state's tax credit scholarship program started under Bush merely redirect money to private and often for-profit interests that could, instead, be used to improve public schools.
But for those promoting more education overhaul, Florida is seen as fertile ground.
Many of Florida's Republican leaders came of political age under Bush. The charter, online and voucher industry also have become a steady source of major campaign dollars, mostly for Republican candidates, according to state records reviewed by The Palm Beach Post.
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