Bush campaign stop miffs school officials
By STEVE BOUSQUET and WES ALLISON
TAMPA -- Hoping to show off his commitment to public education, Gov. Jeb Bush took his re-election campaign to the classroom Tuesday.
But even a governor can have a tough day at school.
Hillsborough County school officials complained about Bush's visit to Wimauma Elementary School, saying they thought it was to be an appearance by the governor, not a campaign event.
And later at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, students grilled Bush about how much new money is actually budgeted for education and the wisdom of relying heavily on standardized tests.
The governor's 10-hour campaign swing was a microcosm of his re-election campaign: He stayed close to the Interstate 4 corridor, an area rich with unclaimed suburban voters and a growing Hispanic population. At each stop, he boasted about all the money he has pumped into public schools.
Visits by the governor are welcome at Hillsborough public schools, but campaigning is not.
"Our policy is this: You don't shoot political spots at our schools. And you don't do campaign-related press events at our schools," said school district spokesman Mark Hart.
Hart said he called Bush campaign spokesman Todd Harris to complain, and Harris apologized for the misunderstanding. The Bush campaign said, however, that only campaign officials had contacted the school.
Hart said the campaign apparently did not explain the nature of the governor's visit to principal Carol DeAgazio. DeAgazio "was placed in an awkward position when the governor showed up with the media in tow. Rather than make an issue of it, she went ahead."
The campaign organized and paid for the trip, though Harris told reporters the school visit was not political. "Even when he's a candidate, he's always governor," Harris said.
Policies vary by school district. Last month, Bush filmed a new campaign ad at a private Christian school because of concerns about restrictions on campaigning at public schools. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride shot TV ads at a Pasco County school on Monday.
At Wimauma, Bush reviewed story lines with a fourth-grade writing class, chatted with kindergarteners and posed for a photo with Chantel Wiles' first-grade class.
Half of Wiles' students spoke almost no English at the start of the school year, but most now are conversant in English, she said. When the governor asked how, Wiles pointed to her bilingual aide, Milagros Ortiz.
"I think I would like to have your job," Bush told Ms. Ortiz. "It sounds like fun."
Ms. Ortiz makes just over $15,000 a year. Such salaries bother Gwendolyn Jackson, whose 7-year-old twins, Charra and Imani, attend Wimauma.
Teachers have more influence on children than anyone but their parents, and Bush should do more to compensate them accordingly, Ms. Jackson said. "I was surprised at how much they make. We all make more than they do."
Almost all of Wimauma's 700 students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. More than 81 percent are Hispanic, and most are from homes where English is a second language.
Still, Wimauma earned an A based on FCAT scores last year. Just three years ago, it earned a D. DeAgazio said she was pleased with Bush's education plans overall, including testing. "FCAT is the propeller for the school," DeAgazio said. "It gets us going."
But in Orlando, Dr. Phillips High student Ben Connors told Bush the emphasis on FCAT scores depersonalizes education and lowers self-esteem.
Bush argued that standards matter, saying that 62 percent of Florida 10th-graders are reading below grade level.
"I don't know how else you can know how you're doing unless you assess it," the governor said.
When senior Alicia McClendon asked Bush whether he would compensate for cuts in education, the crowd applauded. It was a question Bush said he hears often.
"As governor, it's a little frustrating, because the actual numbers, while they're not the kind of growth I would like to see this year, it's still an increase, and we're going to do better next year," he said.
Bush is touting a $1.1-billion, 6 percent increase in the education budget adopted Monday by the Legislature. The increase actually amounts to less than 2 percent after accounting for inflation and hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts made in December.
Bush also met with Tampa-area Republican supporters and lunched with Puerto Rican community leaders in Orlando.
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