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    Bush peppered on school spending

    Facing criticism over funding, the governor's office says reforms are also a factor.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 19, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Under fire on several fronts for his school spending record, Gov. Jeb Bush's administration sought on Monday to shift the debate away from numbers and back to the governor's school reforms.

    The state's teachers union on Monday accused Bush of misleading Floridians with claims of record increases in education spending. In a letter to the governor, the Florida Education Association demanded that Bush apologize to Floridians for misleading them.

    FEA president Maureen S. Dinnen praised a St. Petersburg Times analysis of education spending that determined that, while school spending has risen under Bush, the increase has been less than one-fourth of 1 percent after inflation and growth.

    "Why would he apologize?" said Bush spokeswoman Katie Baur, responding to the FEA demand. "Even unions admit there have been three years of rising student achievement.

    "The education record cannot be based solely on spending," Baur said.

    Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, read parts of the Times story into the record at a confirmation hearing Monday for Jim Horne, acting secretary of the state Board of Education.

    Miller contrasted the newspaper's findings with Bush's statements that schools have seen record spending increases during Bush's term.

    "Which version of the governor's budget do you support?" Miller asked Horne.

    "There's only one version of the governor's budget, and I certainly support the governor's budget," Horne said. But Horne, a former senator and a CPA by training, immediately changed the subject to something other than money.

    "We can look at statistics, and we can debate what they mean," Horne said. "The truth is, we all recognize we've got a lot more to do. Resources are important but there are some systemic kinds of changes we need to make."

    Bush spent part of his day Monday visiting a Fort Myers elementary school to promote an after-school reading program. It enabled him to talk about two of his favorite subjects: the importance of improving reading scores, and his mentoring initiative.

    Meanwhile in Tallahassee, critics spent much of the day challenging Bush's school spending record.

    The funding issue seems to be reaching a fever pitch in Tallahassee. In part, it's because it is an election year and the uncertain economy is making decisions difficult. But there also appear to be significant differences between Senate leaders and the governor and the House leadership about how to fund schools.

    For months now, Bush has been citing some very impressive numbers to characterize school spending during his first three years. The budget has increased by about $1-billion. Per pupil spending is up. And except for the current budget year when the post-Sept. 11 economy forced spending cuts, real spending has increased.

    But the Times analysis showed that, after new students and the effects of inflation are factored in, the actual increases have been less than 2 percent per pupil -- which Bush and his staff acknowledged.

    The director of the Florida School Boards Association hosted numerous school board members during their visit to Tallahassee on Monday, and school funding was a dominant subject.

    "There have not been any significant increases in education for years -- since the mid 80's. We have been treading water for years, not swimming," association director Wayne Blanton said.

    -- Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

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    Lucy Morgan

    From the Times state desk