Bush touts plan for teacher certification
By STEPHEN HEGARTY and ADAM C. SMITH
ORLANDO -- Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday proposed a two-part plan to keep experienced teachers in Florida classrooms, and promised to unveil a plan soon for increasing teacher pay.
The governor would increase the number of the state's national board-certified teachers from 2,257 to 12,000 in the next five years, an ambitious goal that likely would make Florida the national leader in the highly regarded certification. He also would provide incentives for veteran teachers to delay retirement.
Bush announced his latest education initiative and criticized Bill McBride's education plan as "breathtaking in its vagary," while flanked by roughly two dozen educators at an Orlando airport Wednesday.
The Bush campaign has planned a series of education announcements for the coming weeks, as the governor looks to defend his four-year record while rolling out plans for the future. Last week, the governor released a plan to build more schools and classrooms. A plan for raising teacher pay evidently is next.
"Why now? Because it's a campaign," Bush said. "And candidates who run for office need to tell people what they're going to do for the next four years. (McBride) seems to want to speak in vague generalities rather than laying out proposals that can be accomplished."
Critics, especially leaders of the teachers union backing McBride, say Bush is suddenly talking about retaining and rewarding teachers because McBride's call for more school spending has him scared. But the governor dismissed the notion that McBride is setting the campaign agenda.
"This is the No. 1 issue. This is where my success is. This is why I ran in 1994 and 1998," Bush said.
Expanding the national board certification program would cost approximately $160-million fully implemented, up from the $49-million budgeted for it this year. Teachers who achieve the certification after the rigorous, yearlong process are rewarded with a roughly 20 percent pay hike if they agree to work with other teachers.
Earlier this year, the governor's office said he was considering capping the program at 500 newly certified teachers because the program was growing so rapidly. On Wednesday, Bush denied that he sought the cap, and during the legislative session the governor made clear to lawmakers that he wasn't interested in a cap.
"He backed off that real quick, after he heard from teachers and legislators," said Karen Olivares, who oversees the program for the state teachers union, which supports McBride.
Education Secretary Jim Horne, who championed the certification program when he was in the Florida Senate, said Bush always supported the program.
"I think that was a big mixup," Horne said. "The governor has been a big fan all along."
The governor also would enable experienced teachers to put off retirement by extending the five-year limit on the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program, known as DROP. For instance, 92 Pinellas County teachers who signed up for the five-year DROP program in 1998 and are scheduled to retire in July could return for a year or two if they wished.
Both of Bush's plans would require legislative approval.
Also Wednesday, Gov. Jeb Bush launched a new TV ad that promotes a prescription drug benefit for some low-income seniors.
Bush is seen with a group of elderly residents in a diner.
"With this extra benefit for seniors, I am convinced that a whole lot of people can have peace of mind," Bush says in the ad, which is paid for by the Republican Party of Florida.
The so-called Silver Saver program will make use of a federal waiver to provide up to $160 monthly for prescription drugs for about 58,000 people age 65 or older with annual incomes of between $7,797 and $10,632.
McBride has said he supports a "full prescription drug benefit" but he has not said how it would be paid for. McBride said he supports a prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare, and has said: "This is a federal issue, primarily."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire