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Politics

Imprint carved on system: F-C-A-T

By LETITIA STEIN
Published December 31, 2006


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photo
[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Gov. Jeb Bush shares a laugh with Webb Middle School seventh-grade student Estefania Ospina, 12, during a ceremony celebrating the school's work for raising its FCAT grade.

No governor has done more to change the way Florida students learn than Jeb Bush.

Or created more controversy along the way.

Bush introduced the nation's first statewide voucher program, only to have it tossed out by the state's highest court. He banned the use of racial preferences in university admissions, prompting sit-ins and protest marches.

But the governor is best known for using a single, high-stakes test to reward or punish schools and crack down on social promotion.

Eight years later, polls show a majority of Floridians oppose Bush's decision to make the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test the centerpiece of a strict accountability system.

Bush defends the test, pointing to signs of rising achievement, especially among elementary students.

"The fact is that more kids are learning now, and we're not dumbing down the curriculum to have that be achieved," he said.

For better or worse, Bush transformed the education landscape in Florida.

"What he did is change the direction," said Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, "which is an accomplishment in itself."

Most Floridians know Bush's impact on public education by a four-letter word: FCAT.

"In 1998, I couldn't tell you how many kids were reading at grade level, because we didn't measure," Bush said. "We didn't consider it important enough."

Now the FCAT makes or breaks many schools. It helps decide whether third-graders get promoted and high school seniors graduate. It provides a letter grade for almost every school, which determines whether it is sanctioned or rewarded with extra money.

Bush's accountability system has critics, including Hillsborough parent Sherman Dorn. He said his sixth- and ninth-graders are angry about wasted time preparing for the FCAT.

As a historian of education policy at the University of South Florida, however, Dorn recognizes Bush's political skills.

"It's this very ingenious way of capturing public sentiment," said Dorn, who writes about accountability as an associate professor in USF's College of Education. "Adults in the state think, 'Well, if I got grades, why not schools?' "

The FCAT's impact has gone far beyond school grades. Test results brought attention to the long-standing achievement gap between white and minority students. It forced schools to focus more effort on their under-achieving students.

But some teachers and parents never bought into the system. They say it has created a culture of teaching to a test.

"We're going to look back at public education in Florida in 10 or 15 years the way that we look back at apothecaries who used leeches," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach and a public school parent. "We created this high-stakes test that only measured a very few things and minimal competence and put all our eggs in that basket."

* * *

Jim Warford started off as a fan of Bush's efforts to hold schools accountable. But the former Marion County superintendent changed his views after serving as chancellor of K-12 education in Bush's administration.

"What I saw was that 90 percent of the energy went to undermining our public schools with vouchers and charters," said Warford, now executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators.

Bush's first voucher program allowed students at chronically failing schools to use public dollars to attend private schools.

The program, called Opportunity Scholarships, drew an immediate court challenge. That didn't stop Bush and the Legislature from creating two larger programs while fighting in court.

"The parental choice movement owes an incredible debt to Gov. Bush," said John Kirtley, a Tampa businessman and leader in the voucher movement. "He was the first governor to demand that low-income parents with children trapped in (under)performing schools be given the right that parents with means have - the right to choose a better school for their children."

As Bush leaves office, vouchers face an uncertain future. A year ago, the Florida Supreme Court ruled his original program unconstitutional. That decision leaves the other vouchers vulnerable.

Charter schools, another alternative to traditional public schools, also saw explosive growth during his tenure. Charters are public schools exempt from many of the state's rules and regulations. The idea is to create freedom for innovation, but critics argue many aren't held to the same, tough standards.

Today, Florida is home to more than 350 charter schools serving some 100,000 students.

"I'm proud of the fact that our state has led the way in providing more choices," Bush said. "We have more options than any state in the country."

* * *

The governor's bold views on education drew mixed reviews from voters when he faced a re-election challenge in 2002.

Bush handily defeated an opponent with close ties to the state teachers union. But voters used two constitutional amendments to tell Bush what they wanted for schools: smaller class sizes and free prekindergarten.

Bush opposed the class size amendment, predicting its cost would "blot out the sun." Voters narrowly approved it anyway.

"That may have been one of the riskier chances he took," said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a teachers union that campaigned for smaller classes. "I don't think people reacted very well to it."

Bush makes no apologies for his efforts to kill it: "My views are clear on this; my conscience clean."

He also faced criticism for the outcome of the prekindergarten initiative. Pre-K advocates were heartened when he vetoed a bill that lacked standards for curriculum and teacher qualifications. Then he signed a nearly identical bill into law.

"It shouldn't be difficult to make investments in our youngest children when we know it counts the most," said Rep. Lorrane Ausley, D-Tallahassee. "Yet, for some reason, this administration and leadership just haven't been there."

Republican legislators see things differently.

Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, calls the pre-K program a work in progress, pointing to rising participation. He sees it as one of many ways Bush has changed the culture in public schools.

"The dynamic change we have seen in the last decade has Jeb Bush's signature and fingerprints all over it," Pickens said.

* * *

The education transformation that occurred under Bush was, in part, the product of good timing.

He entered office as Republicans surged to dominance of state government. Florida voters also eliminated the elected education commissioner, handing the governor vast new powers.

As a result, Bush's changes are unlikely to be undone any time soon.

Even after he returns to private life, Bush says he expects to stay involved in education debates. He has raised more than $2-million to push education reform through his Foundation for Florida's Future.

"I love public policy in general," Bush said, "but my real passions, I think, are in the education arena."

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Joni James contributed to this report.

About this series

Gov. Jeb Bush ends his second and final term in office this week. The St. Petersburg Times spent three days examining the office and policies he leaves behind.

TODAY: From the FCAT to school vouchers, Bush spent more time and energy on public education than anything else. He changed the system, but did he improve it?

ON THE WEB: To read other stories in this series - how Bush changed the office of the governor and how he tried to revolutionize government operations through privatization - go to links.tampabay.com.

[Last modified December 31, 2006, 00:30:17]


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