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Bush's education policy hangs over race

The candidates for governor may find that it’s not too safe to get too close to, or too far away from, the governor or FCAT.

By RON MATUS
Published July 16, 2006


Gov. Jeb Bush is popular. The FCAT isn’t.

The race to replace him may turn in part on which icon is more potent.

The Democrats — U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and state Sen. Rod Smith — slam virtually every change Bush has made to Florida’s school system, but reserve special scorn for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Smith says the governor’s “maniacal commitment” to the FCAT is burning out teachers and thinning out curriculum. Davis calls it a “political weapon.”

Meanwhile, the Republicans — Attorney General Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher — praise Bush’s policies and promise to keep using the FCAT to grade schools, retain students and reward teachers.
Both approaches carry big risks.

The Republicans want a smooth ride on the coattails of a popular governor, but Bush’s glow does not extend to his education policies, which remain out-of-favor with the general public and even with many loyal Republicans. That is especially true of the FCAT, which preceded Bush’s election but became the keystone in his efforts to restructure Florida schools.

“If it was my campaign, that would not be the position I’d be taking,” said state Sen. Dennis Jones, a Treasure Island Republican and Crist supporter. “When you see so much opposition to the FCAT, all the parties involved need to find a better way.”

But by condemning Bush’s policies across the board, Democrats may be rolling the dice, too.

Bush’s school grading formula has forced Florida schools to pay more attention to struggling students, who tend to be poor and minority. And some credible national yardsticks of student achievement show Florida students have made big gains in math and reading since Bush became governor, especially among minority students.

It is “inescapable” that Florida’s focus on the lowest-performing students has resulted in real gains, said Andrew Rotherham, a former education policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, who now runs an influential blog, Eduwonk.

Rotherham offered praise and criticism for Florida’s school grading system. But he said Democrats should be wary about sticking so closely to the teachers union’s hyper-critical position on the FCAT and other issues, given the possibility of alienating some of the party’s other core constituencies.

“What you’re seeing is a potential formidable wedge between low-income minority kids and organized groups of educators,” he said.

In many ways, this fall’s election amounts to a referendum on Jeb Bush, the only two-term Republican governor in Florida history. Nowhere has Bush had more impact than on education. And nothing is a more emotionally charged symbol of his vision of reform than the FCAT.

The Florida election has national implications, too. The school accountability movement began to flower nationally in the 1990s in response to long-stagnant test scores and fears about weakening American competitiveness in a global economy. Since then, Florida has become one of its leading lights, staying true to the movement’s core belief that high-stakes tests — and not big infusions of cash — are the best way to improve schools.

Bush has championed use of the FCAT to gauge whether students are reading, writing and crunching numbers better than before and then rewarding or punishing schools based on the results. More quietly, the Bush revolution revved up use of other tests and data to measure basic skills and give struggling students extra help.

Florida Democrats define accountability differently. Smith says it’s not about rewards and penalties to nudge schools in the right direction, but accurately measuring and reporting how they “stack up next to each other.”

“Do I expect people will respond to that” and strive to improve? he said. “Absolutely.”

Crist and Gallagher like Bush’s version. Both candidates feature the governor’s image prominently on their Web sites. Both are former education commissioners who say they worked tirelessly to support Bush’s policies.

“Governor Bush is leaving Florida’s schools and their students in the best shape they have ever been,” Gallagher writes in his policy paper on education. Crist, in his paper, drops Bush’s name 17 times in 11 pages.

But while recent polls show the governor is comfortably popular, they also highlight that his education policies are not.

A St. Petersburg Times poll found more Florida residents say the FCAT has hurt public schools than helped, 42 percent to 37 percent. Even among Republicans, a lukewarm 44 percent said the FCAT was helping compared to 33 percent who said it was not.

On more specific questions, strong majorities, even among Republicans, opposed using the FCAT to penalize schools, retain students or determine which teachers deserve bonuses. The poll, conducted in March, had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The FCAT “traumatizes” teachers and students and “every year the pain and agony increase,” said Gloria Pipkin, a retired teacher in Panama City who heads an anti-FCAT group called the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform. With the accountability movement, “we seem to be in a race to see whose rigor is bigger.”

The Republican candidates can’t credibly distance themselves from Bush because Florida Republicans have followed the governor’s lead on education “lock, stock and barrel,” said University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith. If they tried, they would look like they were “flip-flopping, and God knows Republicans don’t want to be seen as flip-floppers.”

Both candidates, however, are carving out wiggle room.

Crist has argued that Republican lawmakers should stop trying to water down the 2002 class-size amendment, while Gallagher says he would continue to support such efforts, given billions of dollars in future costs. It remains to be seen how that difference will play out in the Sept. 5 primary.

Gallagher, meanwhile, goes out of his way in his policy paper to tell teachers and principals — the biggest critics of Bush’s education policies — that his administration “cannot accomplish ongoing reform alone.”

The wording suggests Gallagher might be more willing than Bush to seek input from them and attempt to earn their support.

Gallagher campaign spokesman Alberto Martinez says the public’s views of Bush’s education policies will be reshaped dramatically between now and November. He pointed to Bush’s attempt to sink the class-size amendment while running for re-election in 2002. The amendment still passed, but in a matter of weeks Bush’s opposition turned a landslide for the amendment into a relative squeaker.

This fall, Bush is expected to campaign for the Republican nominee and, by extension, his legacy “Let’s see the election season play it’s course,” Martinez said.

Republicans are also confident they have evidence on their side.

“The facts quickly diminish any perceived advantage” for Democrats, said Crist spokeswoman Vivian Myrtetus.
Bush supporters point to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card. The NAEP test is one of the few national yardsticks that attempts to gauge trends in student achievement nationwide and allows state-by-state comparisons. The New York Times calls it the “strongest, most well-respected test in the country.”

NAEP scores show big gains in Florida’s elementary schools, where Bush focused first. The test is given to a statistically representative sample of fourth and eighth graders in all 50 states. State-by-state comparisons go back to 1990.

Between 1990 and 1998, Florida fourth graders consistently ranked among the worst in the country in reading. But since 1998, only one state has made bigger gains than Florida. In 2005, 65 percent of Florida’s fourth graders were reading at a basic level or above, putting them at No. 26 nationally.

Minority students are improving the most. In 1998, 31 percent of black fourth graders in Florida were reading at basic or above, putting them near the bottom nationally. But in 2005, they ranked No. 12, with 45 percent reading at basic or above. Only three states — New York, Texas and Delaware — climbed faster.

Scores for Hispanic fourth graders in Florida rose quickly over that period, too, from 46 percent to 61 percent, putting them No. 4 nationally.

To counter Democratic criticism about the FCAT, “all the Republicans need to do is get three good statistics” and play them up in campaign commercials, said Charles Garcia, a former member of the state Board of Education and a Crist supporter.

To date, those kinds of statistics have not made Bush’s initiatives more popular. In fact, black parents are more likely than white parents to say the FCAT has hurt their child’s education, polls show.

Many black parents don’t like the “punitive” nature of the FCAT, said Rep. Frank Peterman, a St. Petersburg Democrat whose district is majority black. And they sense something isn’t right when Florida ranks poorly on other education indicators, such as per-pupil spending and teacher pay.

“We have not advanced as far as we should since the FCAT came into place,” Peterman said.

Smith and Davis said better test scores in elementary schools aren’t enough. Both point to stagnant NAEP scores among middle school students and high school graduation rates that remain among the worst in the country.

“There is an awful lot of opportunity we haven’t achieved,” Davis said.

“I simply have higher expectations than that,” said Smith.

Neither Democrat has offered detailed plans for change beyond boosting teacher pay. In the meantime, both promise to dramatically downsize the FCAT into more of a “diagnostic” tool.

Bush supporter T. Willard Fair likes what he hears.

“The last gubernatorial race, the same strategy was used by the Democrats, right?” said Fair, who Bush appointed to the state Board of Education after they worked together to set up a charter school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami.

In 2002, Democrat Bill McBride blasted Bush’s system for grading schools as “absurd” and said the FCAT should only be used as a diagnostic tool.

Bush won easily.