FCAT will stay awhile, new governor or not

 A 1998 amendment to the Constitution puts big changes to the education system out of reach.

Published June 24, 2006

Teachers hate the FCAT. Democratic Party activists hiss when it's mentioned. The Democrats running for governor seem intent on seeing who can bash it more.

But the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test - and more important, the high-stakes way it is used to grade schools and retain students - isn't going away.

At least not right away.

Thanks to strong legislative support from Republicans and a long-forgotten amendment to the Florida Constitution, Gov. Jeb Bush's FCAT-heavy accountability program won't be easily kicked to the curb, even if a new governor orders it.

Legislative leaders and the state Board of Education show no signs of embracing a dramatically new direction. And Education Commissioner John Winn - often credited with being the behind-the-scenes architect of Bush's program - has shown no signs of surrendering his job.

Both Democratic candidates for governor, state Sen. Rod Smith and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, downplay those hurdles. But other observers say changing an FCAT-based accountability system won't be easy.

"It's fair to say it will be a battle," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state's teachers union. "It certainly looks like an uphill battle now."

Bush's legacy as an education governor has governmental terrain in its favor. Voters themselves altered it.

In 1998, they approved a ho-hum amendment to the state Constitution that reorganized the state Cabinet but also quietly and dramatically changed the way state education policy is set. The amendment created an appointed Board of Education with seven members and staggered four-year terms. The governor appoints the members, who in turn appoint a state education commissioner.

The intent was clear: No longer would voters elect an education commissioner. No longer would education policy shift dramatically with every new election.

Voters didn't know this then, but the man who won the governor's race that year would be the first to reap the rewards of that shift. Bush has revamped Florida's education system more than any governor in the state's history. And now, through his appointments to the Board of Education, his policies are likely to survive several years beyond the end of his term, if not longer.

Through the 1998 amendment, the people of Florida have "forced the governor to deal with the Department of Education in a way that in the history of Florida has never been the case before," said Phil Handy, an Orlando-area businessman whom Bush appointed chairman of the Board of Education. "It's going to be a very different governance dynamic."

The new governor will have to deal with the board, which will retain a majority of Bush appointees until 2010, the last year of the new governor's four-year term. He also will face a Republican-dominated Legislature that has remained true to the heart of Bush's vision of school reform and Winn, who served as Bush's education policy guru before becoming commissioner in 2004.

Few people are aware how much the landscape for education policy has changed. Even one of the gubernatorial candidates, Jim Davis, was surprised when told Winn was appointed by the Board of Education, not the governor.

Asked whether he would prefer a different education commissioner, Davis said, "I know John, I respect John, I appreciate John's service. But I would seek change." When asked how he would make good on that promise, given a board stacked with Bush appointees, Davis referred to the Winn question and asked, "Was that a trick question?"

Smith, who faces Davis in the Democratic primary, did not respond to a similar question relayed to his campaign staff. But "he's probably going to surround himself with people more in line with his policies and his approach to things like the FCAT and reforming the FCAT," said David Kochman, Smith's communications director.

Winn could not be reached for comment. But he has indicated he plans to stay on and one of his top staffers recently said she has no immediate plans to leave, regardless of the results in November.

"It would be uncomfortable but not inappropriate" for Winn to serve under a new governor, as long as the board approves, Handy said. "And the board feels as good as it possibly could about Commissioner Winn at this point."

Depending on who wins the governor's race, the future of education policy in Florida could rapidly devolve into a guerrilla war between the governor and Legislature, with hostile camps at odds within the executive branch. Fists thumping on bully pulpits could be part of the picture. So could lawsuits, line-item vetoes and requests for resignation.

Both Republican candidates, Attorney General Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, have largely supported Bush's education agenda and do not appear likely to push for wholesale changes. But both Democrats get cheers from partisan crowds whenever they vow to tame the FCAT.

Both say the FCAT is emphasized too much in grading schools, determining whether third-graders should be retained and deciding whether high school students can graduate. Both say they would end the use of the FCAT in awarding schools pots of incentive money. And both say the test should be used more as a diagnostic tool.

Both also say they're undaunted by a Republican-led Legislature and a Bush-appointed Board of Education.

"I work in the United States Congress," Davis said. "You can always find opportunities. It's about working together."

"I don't believe that if you can establish the case, and I believe we can, that there is a need for change, that there's going to be some sort of lock-in" with either body, Smith said.

Smith earned credit during the last legislative session for lining up Senate Democrats and maverick Republicans to kill two proposals near and dear to Bush: an effort to water down the multibillion-dollar class-size amendment, which Bush once said would "blot out the sun" for education spending, and a constitutional amendment to shield private-school vouchers from court rulings. The House, meanwhile, which has lined up even more solidly behind Bush on education issues, felt free to substantially modify a Board of Education proposal to tie teacher bonuses to FCAT scores.

Bush's critics see a glimmer of hope there. Smith said there is a "moderate center" in the Legislature than can be tapped for a shift on education policy, and Davis said there are "thoughtful Republicans" open to change. Other observers say the Legislature is likely to exert more authority no matter who the next governor is, and that without Bush's heavyweight status to keep them in line, lawmakers will stray from his version of school accountability.

"There is a real possibility the question changes when you don't have the personality of the current governor in there," Pudlow said.

Pudlow also said the Legislature could be miffed by the perception that Bush, through his board appointments, is continuing to shape education policy as if he were a "marionette pulling strings behind the scenes."

The response from one key legislator: Keep dreaming.

Even if they don't have public perception on their side, Bush supporters say, they have the evidence, including national yardsticks of student achievement that show elementary school students in Florida are making some of the biggest gains in the country.

"To undo accountability, that's a crime against children," said state Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, who chairs the Education Appropriations Committee. "We're not going to sit idle and let people do that."

--Times staff writer Jeffrey Solocheck contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873.