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Education debate needs more ideas and less politics

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002

Whatever you think about Gov. Jeb Bush's education reforms, he deserves credit for igniting a long overdue debate on how to improve Florida's public schools. It's too bad so much of the debate is framed by opposing ideologies. Bush's A+ Plan is harshly denounced by Democrats who have little to offer other than calls for more spending without reform. The Republicans, meanwhile, seem to think the only way to turn around failing public schools is to offer parents vouchers to send their children to private schools that are unaccountable to the state for student achievement.

As I have said before, vouchers are mostly a distraction. They will neither save our public schools, as Republicans claim, nor destroy them, as Democrats contend. Instead, vouchers give candidates in both parties an excuse to avoid talking about the education issues that really matter. And we know what those issues are -- well-trained and better-paid teachers, innovative administrators, involved parents, accountability and adequate spending on our public schools.

The governor's A+ Plan has come under sharp criticism for using the FCAT test to declare winners and losers among our public schools and then handing out state vouchers to students in the failing schools. This newspaper's editorial page has been among the plan's critics, not because we oppose standardized testing but because we believe the FCAT results are being misused. The governor takes strong issue with our position, as you can see in his letter to the editor on the opposite page. Among other things, he suggests that we care less about improving schools that are failing low-income students than in returning to the status quo in education that existed before he took office.

To the contrary, governor. Our failure to educate poor, minority children is not only an educational failure, it is a moral failure. Our difference with you is only on the question of how best to remedy the situation. You say our way hasn't worked, and you have a point. But I say it's too early to declare your way a success. Your administration has increased school spending, but just look at the cuts in staff and programs school districts around the state are having to make to adjust to budget realities. (I know that Florida isn't the only state where this is going on.)

Bush is right in saying that the Democrats, the teacher unions and the education establishment right down to local school boards had their chance to address what ails public education, and for the most part they failed to even acknowledge the problems, much less try to solve them. I will give the governor this -- for better or worse, he has shaken up Florida's public education system, which is near the bottom in national rankings in too many categories, from high school graduation rates to teacher salaries. In fairness to Bush, the slippage started long before he moved to Tallahassee.

The governor believes he has a better way and is willing to be judged on the results. Fair enough. If the Bush plan, which is not without political risk, proves successful, I will be the first to congratulate him and will eat my share of crow, preferably served with a good vintage of cabernet sauvignon.

Bush probably feels that even if his A+ Plan is a success -- and he believes it already is -- his critics will acknowledge it only grudgingly, if at all. The governor doesn't believe he has received the credit he is due for increasing spending on public schools (his critics dispute his numbers), or for his reading initiative or for anything else on his education agenda. For example, African-American legislators so far refuse to acknowledge that Bush's One Florida Plan is working as well as or better than the affirmative action system it replaced in college admissions and state contracting.

The One Florida Plan has not been the disaster its critics predicted. Except for the University of Florida, the state's flagship university where black enrollment plunged but is expected to rebound this fall, minority admissions in our state universities are running slightly ahead of where they were under affirmative action. As part of One Florida, the state has increased need-based financial aid and is offering minority students more assistance in preparing for college entrance exams. Bush says although there is more to be done, the results of One Florida so far show the state is moving in the right direction.

This year's elections -- for governor, for the Legislature, for school boards -- should be a contest of ideas on how to improve our public schools, especially in poor communities. So far, the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate to offer a serious alternative to Bush's plan is Bill McBride, who has proposed raising cigarette and other taxes to come up with more than $1-billion for Florida's public schools. He also vows to scrap the FCAT -- or at least the way Bush uses it -- but it's not clear how he would hold schools accountable for student achievement.

If this is the choice in November, my guess is that many voters will stick with Bush -- not because they don't have serious misgivings about his A+ Plan but because they don't want to go back to the way things were in our schools when Democrats were in charge. Democrats will be making a big mistake if they allow Bush to be seen as the only education reformer on the ballot in November.

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