Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Rick Scott's latest ad: Who is that teacher?

A teacher appears with Gov. Rick Scott in a new ad paid for by the Republican Party of Florida.

Less than two years on the job, Florida Gov. Rick Scott appears to have launched his re-election campaign, highlighting his accomplishments in a pair of television ads paid for by the Republican Party of Florida.

In one of the ads, he is backed by a curious surrogate.

The setting: a high school classroom. Scott, in his trademark blue button-down, is joined by a woman who says she teaches American government. The unidentified woman goes on to praise the hospital executive-turned-state leader.

"Florida had huge budget gaps, but he balanced our budget without raising taxes," the woman says. "Now, Gov. Scott and the Republican Legislature are investing in our kids -- $1 billion in new education funding, more funding for reading initiatives."

We’ll talk about the $1 billion in K-12 funding in a moment, but we wondered about the woman.

Scott, after all, picked some pretty high-profile fights with the state’s 180,000 public school teachers in 2011 -- supporting and signing a bill that tied teacher pay raises to the test scores of their students, championing a proposal that cut teacher pay 3 percent to help the state balance its budget, and lobbying lawmakers on a failed proposal that would strip power from the teachers' union by prohibiting it from collecting dues through automatic payroll deductions.

Best reporters in Tallahassee could figure, Scott didn’t even visit a public school to inspect the curriculum or meet teachers until he was already eight months on the job.

So is that a public school teacher now shilling for Scott? Or is it an actor?

Before we give it away, let’s go back to that $1 billion in new education funding -- because it’s a bit of a red herring. The money, which was included in the 2012-13 state budget Scott signed April 17, 2012, does not make up for the $1.3 billion in cuts the Republican Legislature and Scott passed in 2011. (As a matter of fact, Scott originally proposed even larger cuts but was rebuked by Republican lawmakers who found the size of the cuts untenable.)

The $1 billion in funding also must pay for an influx of more than 30,000 new students, a decline in property tax revenue for schools and loss of federal stimulus money for education. PolitiFact Florida previously rated the claim of $1 billion in "new state funding" Half True.

Now as for the teacher, she’s real.

Her name is Heather Viniar. She’s 26, and a first-year teacher at Immokalee High School in Collier County.

She and Scott have met before.

Scott visited Immokalee High last November on one of his "Let’s Get to Work" days. Scott taught two of Viniar’s classes and also had dinner with her. Scott then invited Viniar to Tallahassee and mentioned her in his second "State of the State" address.

"Heather Viniar is here with us today in the gallery," Scott said on Jan. 10. "Heather is a first-year teacher in the rural farming community of Immokalee. I had the opportunity to meet her when I taught school for a day this fall. Heather is very committed to her students. She teaches American government at Immokalee High School. Her classes reach all kinds of our students including honors, advanced placement and English language learners every day."

Viniar told us she recorded the ad, which began airing April 12, in an Orlando classroom. She was there shooting from about 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and was reimbursed for the gas to make the trip. (Scott was there from about 1-3 p.m., she said.) Surprisingly, perhaps, no one in school has brought the ad up to her -- despite its heavy rotation on local television stations. The Republican Party of Florida says the ad buy was "substantial" but has not put a dollar figure to it. Financial records are not yet public record.

"No one has said anything yet," Viniar said. "I don’t know if that means they haven’t seen it."

"In all honesty, I don’t see why anyone would be negative about it," she continued, unprompted. "The commercial was all about giving $1 billion to students. We’re all in the same profession, all doing the same thing -- working for the kids. There shouldn’t be anything bad about it."

Viniar -- who switched her party affiliation in 2011 from Democrat to Republican and didn’t vote in the 2010 governor’s election, according to voting records -- said she’s aware that many public school teachers and the teachers’ union have often opposed Scott’s policies. (Viniar had been a member of the union, the Florida Education Association, but stopped paying dues because she couldn’t afford them.)

"I tend to try not to listen to gossip and things everyone else has to say," she said. "People will say a whole lot. It’s just not necessary. What other people have to say about it is fine, but I’m still just going to teach the kids and do what I can for them. I’m here for my students."

Nothing in our examination is to say Scott would have broken some code if he hired an actor to portray a public school teacher, or if he used stock video of a non-teacher teaching, or if the teacher turned out to be a campaign contributor (Viniar didn’t give to Scott in 2010.)

But in this case, Scott’s television supporter is the real deal.

"It’s not that I have political motives," Viniar said. "I care about the students. I want to give the kids the best education they can get."