By TIM NICKENS, Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2000
TAMPA -- Al Gore pretended it was business as usual Friday in Florida politics.
Ignoring the Elian Gonzalez controversy in Miami, the vice president stuck to safe, familiar themes as he focused on education at Van Buren Middle School in Tampa and Social Security in South Florida.
There was no mention of Elian, or the criticism Gore has received for breaking with the Clinton administration and calling for the boy and some of his relatives to be granted permanent residency status. The closest Gore came to Miami and the mounting demonstrations was a midday fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale.
Instead, the vice president highlighted two popular issues in a trip that signaled his intention to compete in Florida, which once appeared safely in the win column for George W. Bush. Now the state is widely viewed as competitive, and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham is prominently mentioned among possible running mates for Gore.
At Van Buren Middle School just south of Busch Boulevard, more than 150 students, teachers and local political leaders listened as Gore promoted the benefits of after-school programs like those that reach nearly half the school's students. He cited statistics that indicate the afternoon hours after school are those when teen crime, pregnancy and drug experimentation are most likely to occur.
"Those hours can be filled with activities that can be . . . enriching instead of destructing," said Gore, who switched from the dark suit he wore in South Florida to a green sport shirt and tan pants. "I've long argued that prevention is much better than crisis response."
Van Buren was rated a "C" school under Florida's grading system last year, working its way up from "at-risk" under the preceding evaluation system. About eight of every 10 of the school's 808 students receive free or reduced-cost lunches, and about one in four students were absent at least 21 days last year. About half of the students are African-American, a quarter are Hispanic and a quarter are white.
The school has $465,000 in federal Title I money, which is earmarked for schools with lots of low-income students. Principal Nancy Trathowen is using the money to buy library books and computers, hire extra teachers to reduce class sizes and arrange for after-school programs.
"I'm so impressed with these kids," Gore said, turning to the racially mixed group of students behind him in the library before calling for more after-school programs, lower class sizes and increased respect for teachers. "We have got to make a far greater commitment to our public schools than what has been done so far."
Teachers and parents said they are hopeful that after-school programs can be expanded as Gore envisions.
"I think it's well-needed, and it does probably provide a lot of safety and supervised time," said Sheila Nixon, a Van Buren teacher.
Bush would tie the Title One money to student performance on standardized tests that he would require the states to develop. In schools with low test scores he would take away the money and give it to parents, who could use it for tuition at private schools.
Gore would provide every low-performing school with after-school activities. He contended Bush's proposed tax cuts would jeopardize education spending, and he criticized the Texas governor's voucher proposal. He said the result is that students still could not afford private tuition and would merely shift to nearby overcrowded public schools.
"I think that is a mistake," Gore said.
Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said the vice president's criticism is off base.
"Our goal is to provide the same choice opportunities to poor and low-income families we provide to middle- and upper-income families," he said.
Education is ranked as the top issue in the presidential campaign in national opinion polls. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Gore is seen by voters as the candidate better able to improve public education, an issue traditionally linked with Democrats, by a margin of 48 percent to 39 percent.
In Florida, education also is the top issue. But voters now think Republicans can do as well as Democrats in reforming education, said Jim Kane, editor of the non-partisan Florida Voter poll. Although that could benefit George W. Bush, Kane attributed the development to education initiatives by Bush's younger brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.
Social Security is another hot topic.
At a forum with Democratic activists Friday in Delray Beach, Gore pledged to protect Social Security and expand Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit. He criticized Bush's proposal to allow individuals to take part of their payroll taxes that now go to the Social Security Trust Fund and instead invest the money in the stock market.
Cardenas, the first Hispanic state GOP chairman, said he was not surprised that Gore did not mention the Elian Gonzalez controversy.
"I don't think young Elian is playing in his heart too much anymore," he said. "This is a good test of sincerity. He's not saying anything at the most crucial time of all."