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Bush calls for war on illiteracy

With his education plan stalled in Congress, the president stumps at a Jacksonville school.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001


JACKSONVILLE -- President Bush stumped for his education reform package at a Jacksonville school on Monday by breaking the complex plan down to one of its most compelling components: getting children to read.

With about 50 children sitting cross-legged on the floor before him, and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, at his side, the president called on members of Congress to set aside party differences and join him in a "war on illiteracy."

"I don't think education should be a partisan issue," Bush told the audience squeezed into an auditorium at Justina Road Elementary School. "I know reading is not a partisan issue."

Bush's education plan has been bogged down in Congress for months. Both the House and Senate have passed versions of the bill, but reconciling the two has proved difficult -- even before the economic downturn raised questions about its cost.

In his reading initiative alone, Bush wants to spend $900-million just on reading instruction in kindergarten through third grade.

"We can get a bill passed," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who attended the education forum Monday, "if the White House can get behind this one provision (to provide funding to hire 100,000 teachers). That would help the reading initiative."

In holding his education forum in Duval County, Bush picked a good setting to illustrate the possibilities and pitfalls of tackling reading instruction head on.

Justina Road Elementary is a high-poverty school where reading scores took an impressive leap last school year.

Because of dismal reading scores the previous year, Justina Road had been saddled with an embarrassing D grade under Jeb Bush's school accountability system. That was lifted to a C last year after a turnaround in reading scores.

Justina Road is one of 63 Duval County schools that use a particular school reform design called America's Choice. Fifteen other Duval schools use a rival program called Direct Instruction, and the debate between the two programs -- both with a heavy emphasis on reading -- has caused rifts in the school district.

Duval's dynamic superintendent, retired Maj. Gen. John Fryer, raised lots of eyebrows a couple of years ago when he challenged every student to read 25 books each year. Fryer is an America's Choice advocate and has pushed to get more district schools to volunteer for the comprehensive program.

But many, especially in the African-American community, prefer Direct Instruction.

Antionette Chatmon, a literacy coach at Justina Road Elementary, said before the forum began that the president and anyone else trying to get children to read had better have a clear plan.

"You focus on reading, but what do you mean?" said Chatmon, who has been at Justina Elementary eight years, including three as literacy coach. "We're making real progress because we have uninterrupted time and because we find out where the children are (in ability), and then we move them on."

Actually, Chatmon's prescription echoes much of the president's plan.

It calls for testing in grades 3 through 8, as well as some tough penalties for schools that do not measure up with their test scores. Under Jeb Bush, Florida is already doing much of what the president is calling for, so the plan would not result in dramatic changes here.

Monday was Bush's fourth visit to Florida since his election turned on the state's disputed ballot results.

The education forum was a who's who of Florida elected officials. Education Secretary Jim Horne of nearby Orange Park sat next to Education Commissioner Charlie Crist. State Sens. John McKay and Jim King sat behind Sen. Nelson and U.S. Reps. Ander Crenshaw and Cliff Stearns. McKay accompanied the Bush brothers on Air Force One for a quick trip to Sarasota, where the president will participate in another school event this morning.

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