Bush touts progress on schools
By STEVE BOUSQUET and ALISA ULFERTS
TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush opened an election-year session of the Legislature on Tuesday by staking his claim to a second term largely on what he calls "amazing" improvement in Florida schools since he took office.
In his fourth State of the State speech, Bush described big progress under his A-plus plan that grades schools based on test sc
ores, but emphasized Florida has a long way to go. With 47 percent of the state's fourth-graders unable to read at grade level, Bush wants to spend $50-million to improve reading from kindergarten to eighth grade.
Bush also called for spending $100-million to create new centers of high-tech excellence at Florida universities and $45-million to bolster security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
And he urged lawmakers to punish school districts that promote students who haven't learned.
"Excellence in education must be our highest priority in this state," Bush said to the traditional opening-day gathering of political leaders, including lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and a few members of Congress worried about redistricting. "Education is not just part of the foundation on which we build the next Florida. It is the foundation."
Overall, the agenda Bush presented to lawmakers Tuesday was far less ambitious than previous years, reflecting two realities: the lack of new money to pay for new programs due to the recession and a desire to avoid controversy in an election year.
Bush spent a lot of time on education, an issue both parties plan to embrace as their own.
Bush's education proposal would increase spending in grades K-12 by $726-million. Much of that would come from local property taxes and a drop in local contributions to the state retirement system. It amounts to a 1 percent increase when adjusted for inflation.
Democrats attacked Bush's logic and his figures. They asked how Bush can claim progress in education when so many kids are lagging in reading.
"What is happening under the A-plus plan is, teachers are teaching to the test," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Rossin of R
oyal Palm Beach. "This is not a true learning process."
Democrats said last month's budget cuts, after three straight years of Bush tax cuts, brought bigger classes, freezes in teaching positions and elimination of summer school programs.
"People are going to measure Gov. Bush based on success or failure," said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach. "I think that if you go to most communities they're still going to say my schools are still overcrowded, my kids still don't have an aide, and teachers are still buying supplies on their own. We're going to have to have a serious conversation about funding schools."
Klein said the conversation must inevitably lead to Senate President John McKay's plan to let voters overhaul the state sales tax. McKay said he will have enough votes in the Senate, forcing House Speaker Tom Feeney to deal with the subject.
Feeney promised a hearing on the plan, but said it likely wouldn't get much warmth in the House.
"It will get about a 10-minute reception, 91/2 of which would be laughter," Feeney said. He added it would be an exaggeration to declare McKay's plan "dead on arrival" in the House.
Bush has no power to block McKay's tax proposal, because it is a proposed constitutional amendment. But he also is unwilling to help advance McKay's agenda.
Bush sounded more skeptical than ever of McKay's ideas. He called for a "full, honest and transparent dialogue" and raised a series of five questions, including: "What of tax equity and fairness? Will Floridians have to pay more and our tourists less? What abo
ut the costs of compliance?"
McKay said he welcomed questions, by Bush or anyone else.
Bush's speech was conspicuously devoid of tax-cut talk, but he made no apologies for past cuts. "It is not the job of government to constantly seek more revenue for itself," he said.
The governor did propose answers to a host of other issues, from improving security to creating more jobs to cleaning up the Everglades.
He called for stronger measures to restrict construction of new homes in areas where there aren't enough classrooms. He also favors giving school districts more flexibility in how they spend money.
Security also was a major theme.
Bush spoke of a world that "lurched on its axis" after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. At the start of his speech he paid tribute to CeeCee Lyles of Fort Myers, a flight attendant who died in the crash of United Air Lines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.
The crowd gave a lengthy standing ovation to Lyles' widower, Lorne, and two sons, seated in the visitors gallery next to Bush's wife, Columba.
One antiterrorism initiative involves spending $10-million on gamma ray machines to scan trucks at inspection stations on major highways.
In the Democratic response to Bush's speech, Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, said Bush's first three years in office show "a disturbing pattern of broken promises and commitments that haven't been kept."
Miller criticized Bush for cutting state jobs without any tangible improvement in the quality of government services.
Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, the House Democratic leader who is running for governor, said Bush's own figures show one-fifth of Florida schools dropped by one or more letter grades last year and half of all school grades did not improve. She also said changes in the way FCAT scores are used to grade schools complicate the effort to chart progress.
"You can spin the numbers any way you want," Frankel said.
Some listeners were shocked by what they didn't hear.
Children's advocate Jack Levine said he was disappointed that Bush ignored the need to improve the quality of care for preschool children, foster care and juvenile justice.
Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who endorsed Bush in 1998 but broke with the governor on his affirmative action policies, said he wished Bush had mentioned race relations and election reform, issues still important to his African-American constituents.
"It was a good political speech. He was running for election," Smith said of Bush. "He had to grab onto a few things, focus on them and paint a rosy picture."
- Times staff writers Anita Kumar and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.
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