By MARGIE MENZEL
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Florida children may not be able to vote for governor, but they still have a lot at stake in the race. And as the campaign hurtles to a close, advocates say they're frustrated that the future of the state's youngest residents hasn't played a larger role in the discussion.
The first two debates between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, included discord over whose record was better on child protection. It's still a hot-button issue for Floridians dismayed by a wave of child deaths due to maltreatment last year.
The candidates' claims on child protection are still in dispute. But by other measures, Florida's record on children also raises questions.
Florida ranks 38th of the 50 states for overall child well-being in the 2014 KidsCount Databook, published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That includes individual rankings of 27th for education, 37th for health and 45th for economic well-being, with 25 percent of Florida children living below the poverty line.
"Both camps need to step it up for kids," Children's Lobby spokesman Roy Miller said. "Florida traditionally has really struggled to provide prevention and early intervention services, starting with early education. It goes through health care, it goes through child welfare, and they end up in the juvenile justice system."
Yet there's been little talk in TV ads, mailers, rallies or debates about how the candidates would improve early education, children's health care or the lives of children in poverty.
Wansley Walters, who served as Scott's secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice and is now a lobbyist, said the governor had proven to her that he cares about children.
"That's something that you cannot fake," she said.
Scott posted a document on his campaign website called "Caring for Florida Families" that touts his record on some children's issues. It notes that he "championed early learning and voluntary pre-kindergarten programs, resulting in improved quality, greater transparency and more accountability."
The document also quotes David Lawrence, Jr., chairman of the Children's Movement of Florida, as saying he was "encouraged by the governor's eagerness to make both quality and access in early learning
a priority in his campaign."
For years, advocates like Lawrence have tried to convince state leaders to spend more on early education.
With the state enjoying a budget surplus this year, Scott took steps such as asking lawmakers to increase spending on the state's voluntary pre-kindergarten program and the school-readiness program, which provides subsidized child care for low-income families. The state has long had a waiting list in the school-readiness program, and lawmakers went along with Scott's request for more money.
But Democrats, such as former state Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Crist supporter, argue that Scott hasn't done enough to improve early education. She said school-readiness dollars were cut by $80 million during the past four years under Scott, sending kids onto the waiting list.
"Charlie Crist recognized the importance of these investments and worked to maintain and not cut [them] in a down economy, while Scott cut in an up economy," Ausley said.
Also, Ausley argued, Florida under Scott "has consistently refused to apply for or accept federal grants that would have enhanced pre-K opportunities for our 4-year-olds."
But Scott spokesman Greg Blair refuted those charges in an email.
"Governor Scott has provided record funding for education and has committed to the highest per-pupil funding in state history under next year’s budget," Blair wrote.
Blair said Florida in 2011 applied for what is known as a federal "Race to the Top Early Learning" grant and did not receive it. In 2013, Florida did not meet the grant eligibility requirements, but Blair said lawmakers have since appropriated $10.5 million to pursue meeting the requirements.
Blair also noted that for fiscal year 2015-16, the Scott administration's Office of Early Learning would request $30 million to reduce the wait list for school-readiness programs.
Children in Florida struggle with high rates of poverty, with more than a quarter living below the poverty line. Additionally, 888,000 Florida children, or 22 percent, live in households that are food-insecure, meaning that at some point in the last year, they didn't know where their next meals were coming from.
Scott has argued that his focus on jobs is the way to correct poverty. But the percentage of Florida children living below the poverty line increased from 18 percent in 2005 to 25 percent in 2012, according to the KidsCount Databook. The national rate is 23 percent.
That seven-year period included Crist's stint in office, from January 2007 to January 2011, and part of Scott's time in the governor's mansion. It also included the economic recession that sent unemployment and foreclosures soaring in the state.
Former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, who lost to Crist in the Democratic primary for governor, said neither of the candidates has been particularly stellar on children's issues.
She pointed, for instance, to the 436,000 Florida children, or 11 percent, who lacked health insurance in 2012, the last year for which figures were available.
But during the 2014 legislative session, lawmakers rejected a measure that would have extended low-cost health care to 20,000 children of legal immigrants. Another bill, which would have sped up coverage for kids who had been deemed eligible already, also stalled and died.
Rich said Scott cut spending on children's health and education early in his term and has been trying to back-pedal as the election nears.
"That's kind of his modus operandi," she said. "I mean, first you take away a huge amount of money, and then you put back some of it and try to make yourself look like a hero."
But during the campaign, Scott has touted his proposal to raise per-student school funding to the highest level in state history. That would top the previous high, which occurred when Crist was governor.
"By increasing per pupil spending to historic levels next year, school districts will have more resources to provide Florida children the best education possible," Scott said in announcing his school-funding proposal.