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Voters likely to hear two takes on education

adam smith
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By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 23, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- Does it seem, as Gov. Jeb Bush declared Tuesday, that Florida's schools are improving to a degree "nothing short of amazing?"

The question will be at the center of Florida's nationally watched governor's race. But the answer almost certainly will be muddied by dueling assessments of education spending, often baffling testing and school grading criteria, and contradictory political rhetoric.

Gov. Jeb Bush made it clear in his fourth State of the State speech Tuesday that he's running for re-election as the education governor. Even as his Democratic challengers promise to lift education from its dire straits, Bush is not ceding the issue one iota.

He even claims to have spent the most, a measurement usually reserved for Democrats.

"Education is not just part of the foundation on which we build the next Florida, it is the foundation," Bush said, sounding virtually identical to each of his four main Democratic challengers.

Education used to be mainly an issue for Democrats. Not anymore, thanks to Republicans like the Bush brothers seizing it it as GOP priority. Polls show it is a priority for most Floridians.

So voters over most of the next year can expect two opposite views of the state of Florida's schools.

In the upbeat Bush version, schools have enjoyed historic spending increases under his administration and better accountability that already has produced dramatic academic improvements. As proof, he showed lawmakers large graphs and maps showing that since 1999, the number of "F" graded schools dropped from 78 to zero. The number of schools graded "A" or "B" climbed from 21 percent to 41 percent.

In the Democratic version, spending on schools has barely kept pace with rising student enrollment and inflation. They say the improvements Bush is touting stem from dubious budget gimmicks and testing standards that keep changing.

"Rather than use a booming economy to make a real investment in Florida's schools, Gov. Bush chose to give away $1.5-billion in tax breaks -- largely benefiting the wealthy," Democratic gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno said Tuesday. "Now we're faced with the state's worst budget crisis in a decade, and our schools find themselves struggling to make ends meet."

So what are voters to make of all this?

Florida State University political scientist Lance deHaven Smith said voters tend to believe what leaders repeatedly tell them. "But at some point the proof of the eating is in the pudding. People have to look at their own districts. What are their children getting at school?"

On that score, says the head of the state teachers union, Bush is vulnerable. "The voters are probably rather confused, but I do know that voters see summer schools being canceled, and they're talking to their principal and hearing that programs that used to be funded in their district aren't anymore," said Maureen Dinnen, president of the Florida Education Association.

Democrats, and some Republicans wanting to overhaul Florida's tax system, are seizing on recent studies showing Florida losing ground over the past decade to other states on key education indicators. Florida ranks 49th on per-capita spending on education, for instance, and 49th on high school graduation rates.

"It's not appropriate to look at the last 10 years and ask if we're headed in the right direction on education," said Paul Bedinghaus, Pinellas County GOP chairman. "You have to zero in on the last three or four years and ask if we're headed in the right direction."

The answer could determine who gives the next State of the State speech.

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