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    School report delayed for analysis

    Some say the delay in response to a study critical of Florida education is an attempt to downplay the criticism.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 31, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- Senators were expecting a report Wednesday on the state of Florida schools.

    Instead, they got a surprise from the consultant hired by the Florida Chamber Foundation to conduct the study: He wasn't ready to release it.

    It was the day after consultant John Kaliski met with Gov. Jeb Bush's staff. "We thought it would be prudent to reconsider" the findings, said Kaliski, project manager for the study.

    "We have some more specific information that was not publicly available in November" when the chamber released preliminary findings, Kaliski said. Those findings ranked Florida near the bottom among states in education spending and progress.

    Sen. Jack Latvala, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, wanted to know what "reconsider" meant.

    "Reconsider what? Does that make it look better? Maybe the arrows don't go down as far," Latvala said. "Those were presented as final results, and those were bad. All of a sudden, you can't give us the results. Why should I not think that is pretty . . . insulting?" asked the Palm Harbor Republican.

    The implication was clear: Bush is trying to whitewash the findings. Bush rejected that. "Our sole intent was to share with them the most accurate and up-to-date information we had," said Bush spokeswoman Katie Baur. The report is an update of one the chamber did a decade ago. It has been highly regarded. The education component originally was expected in late December.

    But Bush wrote to the chamber group handling the study Dec. 19, asking to meet to discuss "deficiencies" in the report before its final release. Bush acknowledged the political heat the report can generate.

    "The deficiencies in the study are critical to identify because the study is not gathering dust on some library shelf," Bush wrote. "It is being exploited by the media and other activists to present a false picture of Florida as something close to a Third World country and in desperate need of statist, high-tax policies that would cripple the progress Florida has made over the last several years."

    The draft report, which Bush's office released after Wednesday's committee hearing, painted a dismal picture of education in Florida in the past 10 years and held out little hope for improvement.

    "Florida shows signs of lapsing into a vicious cycle, where the state's limited number of high-skilled workers inhibit creation of high-value jobs, limit income levels, and weaken the the state's economy," read part of the report. It praised some of Bush's education initiatives, including school grading.

    One issue the chamber consultant discussed with Bush staffers is how to calculate state education spending. Much of the almost $1-billion in new education money in Bush's budget plan for next year actually comes from local property taxes and savings on school districts' retirement plans, and Bush has discouraged reporters from overanalyzing those numbers.

    Latvala said later that he's concerned that attempts to make the state's education funding picture rosier could hurt Senate president John McKay's tax overhaul plan, which Latvala supports.

    But Sen. Don Sullivan, the Seminole Republican who heads the committee, said he wants more funding for education but doesn't question Bush's motives.

    "I don't think the governor's office is trying to whitewash the report. I think they are concerned that if the Chamber of Commerce is trying to tell a story . . . that it be the right story," Sullivan said.

    -- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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