Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has been shifting his attention to education during his second year in office, is reaching out to tens of thousands of teachers, high school seniors and incoming college students across the state.
In what may be a first for a sitting governor, Scott this month asked school districts, community colleges and universities to send out letters penned by the governor.
Scott, who made headlines when he questioned the need for more anthropology majors in the state's universities, warns students that the world is rapidly changing and they need to focus on education that will help them get a job.
He mentions his own background — including that he spent time living in public housing — and suggests that the students either work or take an internship while in school. He cautions college freshmen about "taking on debt."
"I focused my education in the areas where I believed I could secure a job paying well enough for me to build a family," said Scott, who was a lawyer before he helped start the giant health care chain Columbia/HCA.
In his letter to teachers, Scott says he wants them to know that "we have listened to Florida's educators who are concerned about 'teaching to the test.'"
Scott recently has questioned the state's emphasis on its use of high-stakes testing, but has not yet offered any alternatives. The state is already transitioning to a new version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and the use of end-of-course exams.
The governor also thanked teachers for their time, dedication and "selfless practice of teaching."
Scott's move to send out the letters is coming at the same time that he has been on a weeklong "education listening tour" around the state. Scott is scheduled to wrap up the tour with a dinner at the governor's mansion with representatives of the Florida Education Association. The union has been at odds so far with several of Scott's policies since he became governor.
Scott has battled low poll numbers since he came into office nearly two years ago, some of which has been blamed on his decision to back major budget cuts to education his first year. Scott earlier this year proposed restoring $1 billion in education funding, although the amount did not cover what was cut in 2011.
Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, noting the budget cuts, questioned Scott's commitment to education.
"Gov. Scott's empty rhetoric and closed door listening tour does not erase his party's failure to support our education system," Smith said.
Melissa Sellers, a spokeswoman for Scott, said the governor sent out the letters to "start the conversation about how to strengthen the education system."
The Scott administration sent the letters out last week, but not all school districts have distributed them. A spokesman for Hillsborough County schools said the letters will be distributed at a time when it will not overwhelm the email system. Stephen Hegarty said the district would likely send teachers a link to the letter.
Randy Hanna, the chancellor of the Florida College System, said some colleges opted to send the letter to all students, not only freshman.
There are nearly 190,000 teachers in the state, and last year there were more than 174,000 high school seniors. Figures from the Florida College System show that last year about 86,000 high school graduates entered either a public college or state university.
The letter has already sparked some positive responses. Mary Etheridge, a student at Northwest Florida State College, wrote college officials back and called it "light at the end of the tunnel."
"This letter has given me more hope and encouragement to continue to finish what I started with in college," Etheridge wrote. "It is very difficult working part-time because of college and living from paycheck to paycheck just to survive. There are times when I just feel like quitting college and working full time again. But then, I ask myself is it worth working a full-time job and earning less money with no skills; and, is it what I enjoy doing? Or working a full-time job after I graduate from college; with more skills and knowledge with what I enjoy doing best."