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Education will define 2002 governor's race

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2001


What we don't know about Florida's embryonic governor's race dwarfs what we know.

What we don't know about Florida's embryonic governor's race dwarfs what we know.

We don't know which Democrat will emerge as the strongest challenger to Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, whether Democrats can compete with the GOP cash machine, or how Bush will be affected by the fact that, as he put it last weekend, his "bro is prez."

We do know this: Education will be the defining issue that dominates the race.

That's news, you snicker? Education always ranks among voters' top concerns, you chide?

True.

But the 2002 governor's race will be different.

For decades, Democrats owned education as an issue. Republicans criticized education spending and bureaucracy but rarely offered a credible vision of their own.

Welcome to the new millennium.

Bush and his Republican colleagues in the Legislature now have total control over public schools and universities. In less than three years, they have blown up both systems and completely redesigned them. Any Floridian who hasn't been around since 1998 would not recognize the place.

In public schools, there is more emphasis than ever on standardized tests. Schools are graded and receive money based on test scores. Vouchers for private school tuition are available to students of failing schools and to students with disabilities.

In higher education, universities no longer use race as a factor in determining who gets in and who doesn't. Standards are higher. Schools are more crowded, and there are more schools. The Board of Regents that oversaw it all has been abolished, replaced with an entirely new system that will include boards of trustees at each school.

The governor's race will be a referendum on the direction of Florida's education system. Voters will conclude Bush is headed in the right direction and re-elect him, or decide he has driven the state into a ditch and replace him.

Bush chose to confirm he is running for re-election in a visit to Miami's Coral Park Elementary, which jumped from a "C" school in 1999 to an "A" school this year. In an e-mail to supporters later that day, he claimed "student achievement is soaring" before mentioning any other accomplishments. And at last weekend's Republican fundraiser in Orlando, Bush and state GOP Chairman Al Cardenas could have talked all night about education.

"We set high standards," Bush said. "And we have an accountability system that has no tolerance for failure. And we reward success. And we have put more resources into public education in the last three years than in any three years in the last generation."

But Bush's education policy is what motivates such potential Democratic candidates as Janet Reno, the former U.S. attorney general; Tampa lawyer Bill McBride; and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa. You can bet the would-be challengers will emphasize education when they speak at a Democratic Party fundraiser Saturday night in Miami Beach.

Davis helped lay the groundwork for more standardized testing as a member of the state Legislature in the early '90s, when Democrats still controlled the state House. But he called Bush's heavy reliance on the tests to punish and reward schools "a travesty." Davis also is upset that other Democratic initiatives, such as reducing class sizes and enhancing early childhood programs, are losing ground.

"I can't do the sound bites on this -- yet," he said. "But these are the things that ought to be discussed in the governor's race, and I think the majority of Floridians do not believe this is a recipe for success but a recipe for disaster."

McBride, who recently resigned as managing partner of Holland & Knight to lay the groundwork for a campaign, agreed.

"I think grading and testing the schools are measurement devices," he said recently, "but for long-term improvement you cannot forego investment of resources. You can't test people out of ignorance. You have got to improve investment and resources."

It will be tougher for Democrats to make their case against Bush than for Bush to defend himself.

For better or worse, the governor has a clear record to promote. The test scores and the school grades are front-page news. So is the overhaul of higher education as Bush makes his appointments to each university's board of trustees.

In a 30-second ad, it will be easy for Bush to declare that test scores are up, schools are held accountable and the number of "F" schools has dropped from 78 in 1999 to 0 this year.

The opposing arguments are often more complicated and not as easy to summarize in catchy phrases. It takes time to explain the flaws in the school grading system and the effect of stressing standardized testing. Democrats want to argue that accountability and high standards are good, but the way Bush reaches those objectives is bad.

If they're smart, Democrats will not make their disagreement with Bush over vouchers their defining education issue. That strategy did not work for Buddy MacKay against Jeb Bush in 1998, and it didn't work for Al Gore last year against George W. Bush.

Education spending will be an issue. Bush argues it is at record levels over the past three years, but this year is particularly lean. In Pinellas County, the School Board had to cut $12.8-million to balance the 2001-02 budget as even conservative Republican board members complained.

Next year could be worse if the economy does not recover.

So Democrats will argue that Bush favored tax cuts over education spending, failed to focus on overcrowding or reducing class sizes, and over-emphasized standardized testing. Bush will counter that education spending rose along with accountability and test scores.

How voters grade their arguments will determine whether the "prez's bro" keeps his job.

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