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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2002
The polls are finding that education is by far the most important issue for Florida voters this election year, and so far Bill McBride is the only Democratic candidate for governor who deserves to be taken seriously on the issue. Janet Reno, the front runner in polls of Democratic primary voters, continues to offer little more than platitudes, leaving voters to wonder if she is even aware of the critical needs of the state's public schools, which fare poorly in national rankings.
McBride is the first Democrat in the race to step up to the issue. He recently announced his education priorities -- universal pre-kindergarten, smaller class size, recruiting and retaining teachers, more parental involvement -- and even said how he would pay for his plan. McBride proposes to increase the tax on cigarettes by 50 cents a pack and to close some exemptions to the state's sales tax, although he is vague on which ones, to come up with an additional $1-billion annually to invest in public schools. That won't begin to cover the costs of his education program, but it's a serious start.
Democrats believe they have the advantage over Republican Gov. Jeb Bush on education, and they'd be right. According to recent polls, Floridians are willing to pay higher taxes to improve schools, and many of them are unhappy with Bush's education policies. However, education can be a politically tricky issue for Democrats, as we have seen in Washington, where President Bush has stolen the issue from Democrats. And the way he did it holds some important lessons not only for Florida Democrats, who too often sound like there is nothing wrong with public schools that more money can't fix, but for Jeb Bush, who could learn a few things from his brother on how to outmaneuver the Democrats on this issue.
Most people would probably agree that money is a major part of the solution. However, they also understand that not much is going to change without real reform. The governor's Democratic challenger this fall risks coming across as a spender instead of a reformer if Democrats make money the center of the education debate. Regardless of whether you like Jeb Bush's education agenda or hate it, you have to admit that he has shaken up the status quo in public education. He will campaign as a reformer. The governor's problem is that he has embraced some of the controversial ideas, including private school vouchers, the president abandoned in order to win bipartisan approval of his education package, the No Child Left Behind Act.
Writing in the latest issue of Blueprint, a publication of the Democratic Leadership Council, Andrew J. Rotherham says the president outflanked the Democrats by capturing the political center on education. In the previous decade, Republicans were drawn to unpopular positions -- abolishing the Department of Education, championing vouchers and cutting federal aid to schools. As a result, they took a political beating on education, particularly among independent voters.
Rotherham, who is director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, a DLC think-tank, writes that Bush, as a candidate and then as president, moved to the center by rejecting his party's education orthodoxy, highlighting the needs of minority children and embracing "proposals to expand rather than diminish the federal role in elementary and secondary schools." Democrats made it easy for Bush to capture the center, he adds, by their resistance to real education reform, especially proposals aimed at helping minority children trapped in failing urban schools.
The preferred reforms of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, Rotherham says, "are meaningless in many communities. Suburban parents don't want vouchers any more than urban parents are satisfied with the pace of reform or paternalistic promises that just a little more money and time will turn things around in their under-performing schools."
He goes on: "Large parts of the Democratic Party remain hostile to education reform beyond spending increases and new programs . . . It's hard to argue for more serious resources without championing real accountability for results. Yet that is exactly what many Democrats are doing."
Any Democratic presidential candidate without reform credentials (I believe that goes for Democratic gubernatorial candidates as well) "risks ceding the issue to any Republican who isn't openly hostile to public schools."
Florida Democrats would do well to heed that message. Bush has a controversial education record that he will have to defend. For McBride, who won the endorsement of the state's teachers union, the problem is that he lacks reform credentials. To get them, he's going to have to risk offending that union on some issue. Is he prepared to take that risk?