The Influencer Series

No issue is more important to Florida’s future than education, influencers say

A student raises her hand with the answer to a question at a Pasco County charter school.
A student raises her hand with the answer to a question at a Pasco County charter school. Tampa Bay Times file

More from the series

The Florida Influencers Series

This election year, the Miami Herald, the Bradenton Herald and El Nuevo Herald are driving a conversation on the important issues facing our state. We’ve assembled a panel of 50 influential Floridians to offer their views.

The key to solving the wide array of policy challenges facing Florida starts with one thing: education.

That was the takeaway from the final 2018 survey of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 leaders from across the state. Asked to rank five issues by order of importance to Florida’s future — education, the environment, guns, health care and infrastructure — education came out on top with a plurality (44 percent) of the first-place votes.

The Influencers argued that education is intertwined with many of the problems Florida grapples with, so investing in K-12 and higher education now will pay dividends across the board down the road.

“The amount of inhumane stupidity that passes for human relations in our fair state will only hopefully lead us to place a greater value on education,” said Franklin Sirmans, the director of Pérez Art Museum Miami. “Education will create people who make healthy choices physically and mentally. Educated people might see that guns are not effective tools for human interaction. Educated people help us all make better decisions in regard to infrastructure and transportation and certainly in regard to our environment.”

“Florida faces a number of key challenges in the years ahead, but only one will help us address all of them, and that is further improving the state’s public education system at both the secondary and post-secondary level,” added University of Florida president Kent Fuchs.

Over the past five months, the Influencers have been sharing their ideas on how to address Florida’s most pressing policy concerns and responding to questions from readers of the Miami Herald, Bradenton Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

They will gather at the Florida Priorities Summit at the University of Miami on Nov. 13-14 to draft recommendations and discuss with readers the potential solutions that Tallahassee should consider in 2019.

Florida Priorities Summit

Join us at the University of Miami on Novermber 14 and help us build a better Florida. Together, we’ll share the policy lessons of the 2018 election and discuss real solutions to recommend to Florida’s newly elected officials.

Your voice is important. We hope you will join us.

The latest results were similar to those from the first survey of the series in June, when the Influencers ranked education and economic inequality as the most important issues in Florida.

Throughout the course of the series, the Influencers have provided several recommendations for the next governor and legislature to improve all aspects of Florida’s education system. For K-12 schools, the Influencers said raising teachers’ salaries was the most pressing issue. They also advocated for prioritizing traditional public schools over charter schools. And to improve higher education, they said state officials needed to place a greater emphasis on vocational training.

“Florida families deserve access to quality early education, to vibrant public schools and to vocational training and affordable higher education that will help bridge income inequality and strengthen communities,” said Maria Alonso, the president and CEO of United Way of Miami-Dade. “Investing in education at all levels isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the ideal strategy to help us prepare, develop and retain a skilled workforce to meet industry needs now, and into the future.”

After education, health care finished second in the latest survey with 27 percent of the Influencers’ first-place votes, followed by the environment with 15 percent and infrastructure with 12 percent.

In the June Influencer survey, health care was tied for the fewest first-place votes with gun control, finishing behind immigration, infrastructure and the environment.

“Access to adequate health care directly impacts a number of the other issues and the failure to invest in ensuring all Floridians can obtain treatment for crucial health conditions, including behavioral health issues, impacts almost every aspect of life in our communities,” said Shelley Katz the vice president of operations for Lutheran Services Florida Health Systems in Jacksonville.

Nearly nine months after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, and just days after the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, just one Influencer ranked guns as the most important issue in Florida, while more than 60 percent ranked it last of the five issues.

Readers who participated in the conversation using the Your Voice” online tool had a different set of priorities from the Influencers, however. Just 9 percent of readers rated education as the issue that matters most to Florida. Economic inequality was at the top with 40 percent, compared to 25 percent for the environment, 16 percent for infrastructure and 9 percent for gun control.

In the first round of voting at the beginning of the summer, 29 percent of readers said economic inequality was the top issue, while 26 percent said gun control, 19 percent said infrastructure, 14 percent said the environment and 13 percent said education.

With the midterm elections set to take place Tuesday, the Influencers were asked how well they think candidates running for office have focused on policy solutions in their campaigns. Here’s how they responded:

  • Very well: 2 percent

  • Fairly well: 27 percent

  • Somewhat well: 45 percent

  • Slightly well: 24 percent

  • Not at all well: 2 percent

  • Too early to say: 0 percent

And here is how the Influencers have responded to that question over time.

This is the 15th and final survey of a 2018 series the Miami Herald has conducted with 50 Influencers through the November elections to help focus media and candidate discussion around the policy issues of most importance to Floridians.Thank you to all the Influencers and readers who have participated! Influencers will join other thought leaders in the Florida community and our readers at the Florida Priorities Summit on Nov. 13-14 at the University of Miami.

See the advice the Influencers gave Florida’s next governor and class of lawmakers on Sunday’s opinion page.

George Haj contributed reporting.