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Backlash may be looming on state's school reforms

Even fellow Republicans are objecting to measures that could prevent graduations and promotions.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2003

School accountability in Florida is about to get very personal.

During his first term, Gov. Jeb Bush promised to end social promotion. That means thousands of kids next year likely will have to repeat third grade.

Their parents aren't happy.

The governor also said he would make a Florida high school diploma count for something. That means thousands of 12th-graders won't be getting diplomas.

Their legislators are worried.

Less than four months into his final term, Bush is confronting the sharp-edged reality of school reforms he spent his first term putting in place. The reality hits early next month, when FCAT scores are released. But the outcry already has begun.

And it's not just the Republican governor's natural predators -- Democrats and teachers unions -- who are objecting.

"I think the governor is going to see pressure from his own party that he hasn't seen before," said Steve Swartzel, lobbyist for the Pinellas County school district. "There could be a backlash on this."

A group of Pinellas County women -- Republicans whose political activism had previously been limited to voting -- are spending their afternoons collecting signatures outside the Palm Harbor Library. Their petition pleads with Bush to reconsider a system that might affect their third-graders.

Cuban-American lawmakers, who are Republicans and among Bush's biggest supporters, are telling the governor they don't want to see kids in their districts denied diplomas.

Bush says he knew there would be skittishness when the accountability bills came due. But he waves off suggestions that the pressure might cause him to abandon the plans he worked on for four years.

"Yes, I remain committed to the reforms," Bush wrote in a recent e-mail. "Yes, I will fend off attempts to water (down) the reforms. Yes, it was expected."

In other states, lawmakers have backed down when tough deadlines approached. North Carolina and Alaska postponed their graduation test requirements. California eliminated some of the toughest questions on its test. Arizona revisited its math requirement when the failure rate was embarrassingly high.

Bush and his top education officials say that won't happen here.

"This accountability system has a lot of bite to it," said Education Secretary Jim Horne. "But the governor and I are strong on this. We're not backing up."

* * *

A few weeks ago, Sally Caron didn't know how to put a petition together. She wasn't sure who to send it to.

But the Palm Harbor woman knew she had to get involved when she saw how a state law might affect her son.

"I was like all the other parents -- FCAT? What's that?" Caron said. "But now they have this third-grade retention issue. I found out everything I could about it. My children are my first and foremost."

Last week, Caron and her friends Betty Van Stedum and Dawn Scott sat at a table outside the library after school, collecting signatures. Each has a third-grader at Ozona Elementary School. They were joined by Sandra Everett, a teacher at the school.

"I don't usually do things like this," Van Stedum said. "I'm a very quiet person."

She and Caron have collected hundreds of signatures and are planning to drive to Tallahassee soon to deliver the petition.

The law says that if a third-grader fails the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, they must repeat third grade. There are other avenues for promotion, such as a higher score on a different test and a detailed portfolio proving that the child can read.

The governor cites statistics to explain the goal behind the law.

"Last year, around 3 percent of students were held back (in third grade) in spite of the fact that roughly 30 percent" failed the FCAT reading test, Bush said. "We are trapping these children that are passed along in a downward spiral unless they improve their aptitudes quickly."

Based on last year's FCAT results, as many as 50,000 third-graders could fail the reading portion this year. That's means nearly one-third of Florida's third-graders could be in danger of retention. The actual retention numbers are expected to be much lower, but no one doubts they will be higher than last year.

In a visit to Tampa today, Bush and Horne will announce plans for getting kids back on track academically. They clearly don't like the prospect of tens of thousands of third-graders being held back.

State lawmakers don't like the prospect of thousands of teenagers in their districts being denied a high school diploma.

Lawmakers from both parties recently urged Bush to consider alternatives so large numbers of black and Hispanic students can graduate.

Students take the graduation test as 10th-graders. If they fail the math or reading portion, they get five more chances to pass before graduation. About 12,000 high school seniors statewide who still hadn't passed the test took it again in March. They're awaiting the results, with graduation day fast approaching.

Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, is a former school principal. She said she knew there was a problem when she attended a town hall meeting a few weeks ago.

She learned that students who were getting admitted to college based on their SAT scores might not get in if they don't pass the FCAT.

"Now that they're trying to graduate, we have slammed the door in their faces," said Wilson, a former president of the state's legislative black caucus. "I see us creating a permanent underclass of children destined for trouble and jail."

Rep. John Quinones, R-Kissimmee, met with Bush last week and explained his concerns about students who are just learning to speak English. He is optimistic the governor will consider alternatives.

"I don't want to drop the standard altogether," Quinones said. "He's looking into it, the impact it will have on the constituency group."

David Denton, with the Southern Regional Education Board, which monitors education issues in the Southern states, said it's natural that pressure is building in Florida.

"It's always a big deal when something like that finally kicks in," said Denton, the education board's director of school readiness and reading. "No matter how much you talk about it, some people don't really see it for what it is until it hits."

Denton said it will be interesting to see how Bush and the Legislature deal with the pressure.

"These kinds of reforms are almost like shock therapy," Denton said. "There are cases where it does great good and cases where it does great harm."

-- Staff writers Anita Kumar and Michael Sandler and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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