Original URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/296/nation/Education_pivotal_in_Florida_election+.shtml

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 weeks away.

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
schools.

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 supported.

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 education.

''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 amounts
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 opposes it.

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 enrollment
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 classroom overcrowding.

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 Education Association.

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 kindergarten
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 education.

''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 mleonard@globe.com.  This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 10/23/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

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