Running on Education: One Candidate's Story
West Palm Beach, Fla.
This year, perhaps no candidate has more riding on education than Jeb Bush.
The Florida Republican, who is making his second bid for governor, was portrayed as a voucher-pushing social conservative in his losing attempt to unseat Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles four years ago.
Now, polls show Bush holds a double-digit lead in the governor's race against Democrat and current Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay. Bush chalks it up to an education platform that has been in the works since shortly after his narrow 1994 loss.
"This time, I'm more focused on a more comprehensive approach" to education, Bush says.
It's a muggy fall afternoon, and the candidate is standing in the parking lot outside a West Palm Beach hotel where, in his fourth campaign speech today, he promised to make education spending the state's top priority. He wipes his forehead and continues: ''Last time, I talked a lot about charter schools; this time, I have more real-world experience. I can always draw from my database of stories to validate a point of view."
Those "real-world" credentials include co-founding an inner-city charter school with a black civil rights leader and visiting more than 200 schools while campaigning. In addition, he has named Frank Brogan--the state's popular education commissioner--as his running mate, scaled back his voucher proposal to apply only to students in low-performing schools, and proposed testing students in all grades and using the scores from the tests to rate schools and determine student promotions.
Political observers agree that the expanded education focus has helped Bush score big points with this state's ethnically and economically diverse population of 14.5 million people.
"Jeb did something very smart four years ago," says Republican campaign strategist Paul Pelletier, the president of Direct Campaign Solutions in Clearwater, Fla. "He saw this climbing as an issue and did what a good, thoughtful person would do and researched it over a period of time."
But MacKay remains unimpressed. Referring to Bush's school visits in a recent debate, he declared: "It's like he's Florida's number-one tourist. Based on that, he now has this idea that he is qualified to be governor."
Still best-known nationally as one of four sons of former President George Bush, and the brother of incumbent Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Jeb Bush is a successful real-estate developer who has lived in Miami for 18 years. He and his wife, Columba, have three children, ages 22, 21, and 14. A campaign spokesman said that although the children have attended private schools most of their lives, the Bushes' oldest son, George, teaches social studies at 2,750-student Homestead Senior High School, a public school in Miami.
Bush began putting his new education strategy into action in 1995 when he invited T. Willard Fair, the director of the Miami chapter of the Urban League, to co-found a charter school for low-income students in Miami. Fair, who says public schools expect too little of minority students, agreed. The Liberty City Charter School opened in August 1996 with 60 K-2 pupils, becoming the first school in Florida to receive a charter. Such charters allow schools to receive public funds but operate free of most state rules.
Bush helped raise $600,000 in private money to renovate the school and, in return, he acquired a wealth of goodwill among Miami's minority leaders. Fair says that Bush stays involved with the school, and that all of the students know him. But he acknowledges that the candidate's role there also shows his political savvy.
"He was in the process of making sure he didn't make the same mistake he made in '94 of buying the GOP line that [blacks] aren't going to vote for you anyway, so ignore them," declares Fair, a tall, lean man with a salt-and-pepper beard and wire-rim glasses. He speaks passionately about the school, which now has 180 students in grades K-4. "What's really important, after all is said and done, is whether value has been added to what I'm attempting to do in my community, and the answer is a resounding yes."
Still, Bush's candidacy has drawn a resounding no from the state's two largest teachers' unions, both of which say even his scaled-back voucher proposal would set a dangerous precedent.
Besides, there's no guarantee what kind of voucher proposal would emerge from the state legislature if it remains controlled by Republicans after the Nov. 3 elections and Bush is governor, says Pat Tornillo, the president of Florida Education Association United, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "We are not sure Jeb will be able to withstand the pressure from a Republican-controlled legislature," Tornillo says. "I don't believe the kind of voucher plan he will get is the kind he's talking about."
Sunshine State voters, however, may be willing to overlook that. "People are aware that Jeb Bush has continued to be interested in solving education problems," says Jim Kane, the editor and chief pollster for Florida Voter, a nonpartisan publication. "They may not agree with his policies, but they see his attempts as trying, and they give him credit for that, more than his ideas."
-- ROBERT C. JOHNSTON
Vol. 18, Issue 8, Page 29