tampabay.com

Schools a weak link in poll for Gov. Bush

Most approve of the job he's doing, but question his education reforms. Supporters say the right thing isn't always popular.

By RON MATUS and DONNA WINCHESTER
Published April 2, 2006


Gov. Jeb Bush's sweeping overhaul of Florida schools is out of step with the views of most Floridians, according to a new St. Petersburg Times poll.

Overall, most Floridians give the two-term Republican high marks for job performance. But on education issues, support for his policies wanes.

A majority of Floridians do not like private school vouchers, continue to support the multibillion-dollar class-size amendment and oppose use of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to reward or penalize schools, the poll shows.

Meanwhile, parents say they like their public schools. A lot.

The responses come as Bush supporters in the Legislature consider a raft of proposals at odds with those positions, and Bush himself continues to vigorously defend and advance his education reforms.

The disconnect raises an obvious question: How long can Bush's vision be sustained without broad popular support?

"This poll should be a very strong signal and an important lesson for whoever is going to be the next governor," said Jim Warford, a former K-12 chancellor who now heads the Florida Association of School Administrators. "The public is saying to the next governor, "It's time for common-sense course corrections.' "

Bush did not respond to questions about the survey results, and a spokesman said the governor does not put stock in polls. But one Bush ally said in this case, popular discontent is the price of leadership.

"I want to tell you something about accountability: It's hard. It hurts," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chairman of the House Education Council. "If you're going to do the right thing, it's not always going to be the popular thing." The Times telephone poll of 872 Florida adults was conducted March 14-26 by RSVP Research Services of Tampa. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Among its findings:

51 percent approve of Bush's job performance, while 29 percent disapprove.

40 percent like the way he is handling education issues, while 37 percent don't.

61 percent oppose using public money for private school vouchers.

70 percent said schools should not be penalized because of FCAT results.

Another recent poll unearthed the same dynamic: A Mason-Dixon survey released last week found Bush enjoying the best approval rating he has ever had, with 63 percent grading him as "excellent" or "good." But a much lower percentage support his positions on vouchers and other education issues.

Mason-Dixon polled registered voters. The Times survey included nonvoters. Both polls come in the midst of a historic scrum over education policy.

In the Legislature, Republicans are working to rescue vouchers, water down the class-size amendment, increase academic rigor in middle and high schools and give the governor power to take over failing schools. In the gubernatorial race, education is emerging as the issue. And in homes and schools, an FCAT backlash is gaining steam, stoked most recently by a Board of Education plan to tie teacher bonuses to FCAT scores.

Warford said the bonus plan's roll-out in February points to another reason why the governor's education policies have not been more heartily embraced: a hard-charging approach that critics call my-way-or-the-highway.

The Bush-appointed Board of Education unveiled the plan with little or no input from teachers, principals, superintendents or district officials. The result: a barrage of criticism and a legal challenge from the state teachers union that will be heard later this month.

"It's absolutely a matter of reaching out more, of working with those who have to do the job," Warford said.

The Times poll found Floridians have especially strong feelings about the FCAT.

Designed to measure basic skills, use of the FCAT preceded Bush's election. But Bush made it the linchpin of his school improvement efforts - and a lightning rod in the process.

"I want to tell you something about accountability:

It's hard. It hurts."

- REP. DENNIS BAXLEY, R-Ocala, chairman of the House Education Council

Schools that do well based on FCAT scores are rewarded with additional money. Those that fail are subject to more oversight and given extra help.

FCAT scores also determine whether third-graders are promoted and high schoolers graduate. And, if the performance-pay plan withstands the legal challenge, FCAT scores will, for many teachers, be the sole criteria for bonuses.

Floridians don't like any of it, the poll shows:

42 percent say the FCAT has hurt education in Florida, while 37 percent say it has helped.

68 percent said teacher bonuses should not be linked to the FCAT.

57 percent said schools should not be rewarded because of FCAT results.

"Standardized testing is a good measure, but it's not the only measure," said Mary Barrish, 45, an Alachua County Republican who has two children in public schools and says she supports Bush on most issues. "I think they're teaching to the test now instead of just letting the kids take it."

Others complain that too much emphasis on the FCAT has forced schools to limit subjects beyond math and reading and that intense focus on the lowest-performing students has diverted attention from others.

Floridians "don't want FCAT preparation centers," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "They don't want minimum competence as a goal."

Marion County resident Brian Farley offered a more basic complaint on behalf of his kids: The FCAT "makes them very anxious," he said.

Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, who chairs the House PreK-12 Committee, dismissed the poll numbers, saying Democrats and teachers had so successfully trashed the FCAT that any question containing the term would skew negative.

He said a better way to gauge public perception would be to ask parents if they agree with measuring their child's learning gains, or if they support evaluating schools and their progress in educating children.

Critics "have demonized the FCAT, but they cannot demonize accountability," he said.

Supporters also say that despite public perception, there is strong evidence that high-stakes testing has made Florida schools better.

They point to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, often called "the nation's report card," that show elementary school students in Florida making some of the biggest gains in the country since Bush took office.

NAEP scores also show Florida is among the leaders nationally in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

"We're turning some things. We're seeing some change," Baxley said. "We're not where we need to be, but we're ahead of where we were."

Interestingly, the Times poll shows roughly four in five parents with kids in school rate those schools as "good" or "excellent," and approve of their teachers by similar margins.

"They're not marching to Tallahassee with torches and pitchforks," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

But other observers wonder: Can those pushing for even more change make their case when most people think their schools are fine?

The Times poll shows parents with children in school are more supportive of the FCAT than the public at large, though they are still split. Thirty-nine percent said the test helped their child's education; 37 percent said it hurt.

Another notable poll finding: Hispanic parents were much more likely than other parents to say the FCAT is a good thing. Half of Hispanic parents said the FCAT has helped education, compared to one-third of black and white parents.

For all practical purposes, the FCAT isn't going away. Using standardized tests to measure student progress and evaluate schools is entrenched not only at the state level, but by overlapping federal rules through the No Child Left Behind Act.

Floridians will continue to be conflicted, said Jewett, who sits on the school advisory council at his child's elementary school.

Many parents tell him there is too much testing. But they also want schools to be held to high standards.

The FCAT, he said, is "kind of like bitter medicine."

Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.