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Education pivotal in Florida election
Failing schools new plans shape governor's race
By Mary Leonard, Boston Globe Staff, 10/23/2002
AMPA - Bill McBride pulls a worn copy of Article IX of the Florida Constitution
from his pocket as evidence that public education is the ''paramount duty'' of
the state's governor, a job he is seeking with the energy of a schoolboy.
Fixing Forida's overcrowded, underperforming public schools is McBride's
campaign mantra, and the Tampa lawyer has used it to threaten to unseat Governor
Jeb Bush, who was elected as an education reformer in 1998 and has since pumped
$3 billion into the state's schools. Bush is defending his education record
aggressively - ''Our schools are better now,'' he asserts.
McBride says Bush is defending the status quo and the worst education record of
any Florida governor. ''The public schools are in a crisis,'' McBride said.
With the governor's race in a near dead-heat and three education initiatives on
the ballot, including one that would amend the constitution and mandate smaller
classes, the laser beam in Florida is on education.
Bob Poe, chairman of the state's Democratic Party, calls education the ''No. 1,
No. 2, and No. 3'' issue in fast-growing Florida. Nationally, polls show
candidates cannot ignore the issue, which ranks right below the economy and the
war on terror as a top concern of likely voters with the midterm elections two
Traditionally, Democrats, supported by teachers unions, have been perceived as
better advocates of public education. But that advantage has disappeared this
year as polls put Democrats and Republicans about even in their ability to
handle school issues. Political analysts say it is probably because President
Bush followed through on a campaign promise to make education a priority and
push a federal law that adds billions of dollars in federal funding and mandates
public-school accountabilty, student testing, an emphasis on reading, and more
training for teachers.
''In the same way that Bill Clinton changed the complexion of crime and welfare
for Democrats, George Bush has neutralized the education issue and made
Republicans competitive on it,'' said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at
the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
In New Hampshire's Senate race, Republican Representative John E. Sununu is
touting his own record of support for the No Child Left Behind Act, which Bush
signed in January, and has criticized his opponent, Democratic Governor Jeanne
Shaheen, for ''failing to fix the school funding crisis.''
Shaheen, a former teacher who dubbed herself an ''education governor,'' was
forced to impose an unpopular state property tax in 1999 to fund the public
Republican Senate candidates Tim Hutchinson in Arkansas, Wayne Allard in
Colorado, and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina are campaigning on their votes to
increase federal education spending.
In an unusual twist, Representative Chet Edwards of Texas, a Democrat, has aired
a television ad blasting his GOP rival, businessman Ramsey Farley, because
Farley ''vehemently opposed President Bush's education bill,'' which Edwards
Kenneth Goldstein, a political scientist who directs the Wisconsin Advertising
Project at the University of Wisconsin, said that so far 20 percent of
advertising by House and Senate candidates in this election cycle has been about
''A lot of Democrats in competitive districts are trying to tie themselves to
the president's education bill,'' Goldstein said. ''For Republicans, education
really is the only issue where they can seem like compassionate conservatives.''
Education, typically a major issue in gubernatorial races, is elevated this year
because of state budget shortfalls that are causing cutbacks and hard choices in
school spending. ''Whoever is in charge will have a lot to say about budget
and allocations to public schools,'' said Reg Weaver, president of the National
Education Association. The nation's largest teachers' union is spending millions
of dollars this fall to support Democrats in statewide races.
In Massachusetts, both major party candidates for governor are advocating higher
standards and more parental involvement in public schools, plus programs that
would cost more money. Republican Mitt Romney has called for merit pay for
teachers and full-day kindergarten. Democrat Shannon O'Brien wants smaller class
sizes and more after-school programs. They disagree on the ballot initiative to
replace bilingual education with English immersion. Romney supports it; O'Brien
Colorado also has a similar initiative to end bilingual programs, and in
California actor Arnold Schwarzenegger is chief proponent of a ballot measure
mandating after-school programs for disadvantaged students. Florida has
initiatives to provide universal prekindergarten and revive a board of regents
to run the state university system.
But Florida's education hot-button is Amendment 9, a ballot initiative that in
2010 would cap class size at 25 students in high schools; 22 in 4th through 8th
grades; and 18 in kindergarten through 3rd grade. With the state's school
exploding and classes averaging more than 35 students, the measure is extremely
popular. More than 70 percent of Floridians support it, recent polls show.
McBride, who says Governor Bush's inadequate funding for schools has put Florida
near the bottom nationally in high school graduation rates and SAT scores, has
endorsed the initiative. ''Every kid has to have a chance,'' McBride said at a
rally of 100 cheering teachers from the Hillsborough County schools, which
opened 11 new buildings and enrolled 7,000 new students this fall.
Bush opposes the measure and calls it irresponsible. He says it could cost the
state as much as $27 billion to fully implement - a figure proponents say is
inflated by billions - and could require new taxes and deep cuts in programs for
seniors and the disabled, and postpone highway and water projects.
''If the initiative passes, all bets are off,'' said Bush, who clashed with
McBride last week in an Orlando debate. ''This is going to cause an increase in
taxes ... and become the organizing principle of life in Tallahassee.''
State Senator Kendrick Meek, who started the initiative petition drive after
legislation to cap class sizes failed in the state Legislature, said support
crosses socioeconomic lines and predicted the ballot question would increase
voter turnout among African-Americans and soccer moms who are ''fed up'' with
Politically, ''it is kryptonite to Jeb Bush,'' said Meek, a Miami Democrat who
is running for Congress.
Last week, Bush said he regretted telling a group of state legislators he had
''a couple of devious plans'' to sabotage the amendment if it passes. The
remark, meant to be private, was taped by a reporter and now is being repeated
by McBride and replayed by his allies at the Florida affiliate of the National
At least 20 states have initiated programs to reduce class size, and President
Clinton made it his goal in 1998 when he called for hiring 100,000 new teachers.
Research shows that small classes are most effective for children in
through third grade and when the student-teacher ratio is about 15 to 1.
Neal Berger, an education professor at the University of South Florida, believes
its appeal is more political than pedagogical. ''It's intuitive - parents think
it's a desirable thing,'' Berger said.
So does James Washington, a teacher at Liberty Middle School in Tampa who has
had 42 students in a single language arts class and does not have enough
textbooks this year to go around. ''You just can't get to them all or give
anybody extra attention,'' said Washington, who likes McBride's positions on
''Everybody wants smaller classes, but how are they going to pay for it?'' asks
Keith Ronan, a Web site designer from St. Cloud who does not believe that
McBride's proposed 50-cent-a-pack cigarette tax will cover the cost. ''Education
is a huge issue to me - I have a young son - but I don't blame Bush for not
being able to walk in and fix struggling schools.''
Mary Leonard can be reached at
email@example.com. This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.