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Schools

Bush: School reform not over

The governor rallies his supporters at a summit to keep working for his initiatives.

By RON MATUS
Published January 25, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Six weeks before his final legislative session, Gov. Jeb Bush rallied key lawmakers Tuesday, urging them to water down the class-size amendment, insulate private school vouchers from future court challenges and push ahead on changes in middle and high schools.

"Success is never final, reform is never finished," Bush told about 200 people at an education summit organized by the James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank in Tallahassee. "If we stand pat on what we've done, even though it's meaningful ... that's the first day of the demise of education in Florida."

Bush's spirited remarks left no doubt he wants to solidify his legacy as an education governor. And the legislative session that begins March 7 will give his allies a chance to head off two threats: the recent Florida Supreme Court decision on vouchers, which could cripple Bush's efforts to expand school choice for parents; and the multibillion-dollar class-size amendment, which threatens to devour state money that could be used for other education initiatives.

More than a dozen state lawmakers applauded Bush's pitch, including Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who is expected to be the next Senate president and is spearheading efforts in the Senate to make the class-size amendment more flexible. The chairmen of all five House education committees also were present.

"I'm on it," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the influential chairman of the House Education Council, referring to Bush's agenda. "I'm pawing the ground."

Bush's critics were less enthusiastic.

Democrats called the summit nothing more than a "pep rally" for the Republican education agenda.

"A real education summit would include parents, teachers and education experts of every ideological perspective," said Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee.

Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union, said the governor has shortchanged education.

"The governor's trying to make all this change at the lowest possible cost," said Pudlow, whose union has long complained about teacher salaries that rank in the bottom half nationally and per-pupil spending that ranks near the bottom.

Tuesday's summit featured education researchers from around the country, most of them strongly supportive of Bush's positions on school choice, school spending and high-stakes testing. Speaker after speaker took shots at teachers unions, the "liberal media" and the "activist" Florida Supreme Court, which voted 5-2 this month to dismantle Opportunity Scholarships, the centerpiece of Bush's education agenda and the first statewide voucher program in the nation.

"Be prepared to fight," said Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, a former teacher who heads the PreK-12 Committee. "They're going to come after you personally. They're going to come after you every which way."

In his remarks, Bush acknowledged missteps in pursuing his education initiatives but made no apologies for vouchers, his controversial system of grading schools or for putting so much emphasis on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

"If you don't measure, you don't care," he said. "In Florida, we care, so we measure the be-jesus out of everything."

Bush outlined his major goals for the legislative session, but said reining in the class-size amendment - which sets rigid caps on the number of students per classroom - is essential if money is going to be available for other initiatives, including more focused attention on students who struggle the most.

He saved his most passionate remarks for vouchers, calling school choice a "fundamental right" that "needs to be imbedded someplace that won't be affected by court ruling." Bush later told reporters that saving other voucher programs, which legal scholars say are in jeopardy, may require both legislation and a new constitutional amendment.

Lawmakers are expected to move on both fronts, but will need a three-fifths vote to put an amendment before voters. Trying to shore up vouchers without an amendment "would be like straightening deck chairs on the Titanic," Baxley said.

Panelists credited Bush policies with boosting student performance in lower grades and narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

"Florida looks pretty good," said Harvard professor Paul Peterson, who has analyzed Florida's accountability system in detail. "There are very few states that have a record that is this consistent" in terms of across-the-board progress.

Other speakers sought to dispel the notion that Florida funds education on the cheap.

In a recent poll, three think tanks found that nearly 60 percent of Floridians believe the state doesn't spend enough money on schools. But a majority also said the state shouldn't spend more than $6,000 per pupil - which is more than $1,000 less than the state now spends.

"Most people rely on sound bites" to get their information, said Susan Aud, a senior fellow at the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, which helped sponsor the poll.

But it's also true that Florida ranks 47th in per-pupil spending, said Pudlow, the teachers union spokesman. And he said it should come as no surprise that people don't know exactly how much is spent on an issue like that.

"They don't know how much it costs to run a police department or a fire department either," he said.

Tuesday's keynote speaker, William Daggett, sought to put the policy debate in perspective.

A former New York state education official, Daggett threw out a barrage of statistics to bolster his view that major education changes need to be made, pronto.

In Asia last year, 60 percent of all college degrees were in engineering or the sciences, while in the United States, 5 percent were, and nearly half went to non-citizens, he said. At the same time, 1.3-million students in the United States are learning French, while only a few thousand are learning Chinese.

Why is that, Daggett asked?

He answered his own question: "Because we have French teachers."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

[Last modified January 25, 2006, 00:54:10]


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