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Published in Print: October 23, 2002, as Education Issues Hit Home In Florida Election

Education Issues Hit Home In Florida Election

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Carleen Downing may be the perfect Florida Democrat. She compares Bill Clinton to John F. Kennedy. She testified last year in Tallahassee about voting problems in the 2000 presidential election. She's a longtime member of a local Democratic club and the NAACP.

Elections 2002 She's always known where she stood, and usually had no problem deciding her candidate for governor.

Until the day Florida's education debate walked through her front door.

Her youngest child, Freshandra Willis, wanted to leave her public school and use a state tuition voucher to attend Glades Day School, which was opened in 1965 for white families who did not want their students in integrated schools.

Freshandra's request to take part in Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's voucher program not only violated her mother's political views and boundaries of race and tradition. It also forced her family to examine the same education issues many Florida voters will be weighing in the Nov. 5 election for governor.

"She put me right into a change," Ms. Downing said of her daughter.

None of that mattered much to Freshandra, who is 14. She just wanted a place where the classes and the school itself were smaller. Where she felt safer. Where she could concentrate on school above everything else.

Of the 36 contests for governor on state ballots in two weeks, the Florida election may hinge most heavily on K-12 education. And the high-profile race shows how differently both major political parties are approaching education issues this year.

That's because Gov. Bush and his appointed lieutenant governor, Frank T. Brogan, have helped build the nation's most extensive—and controversial—menu of state- instituted school choice. Thousands of students across Florida are using the programs this year to attend private and religious schools. ("Florida Sees Surge in Use of Vouchers," Sept. 4, 2002.)

"There's never been an education governor in Florida like Jeb Bush," said Mr. Brogan, a former state education commissioner, principal, and teacher. "He knows that every child needs and deserves a good education, no matter where they have to go."

But the Bush-Brogan approach to education, which features test-based accountability along with school choice, is about to reckon with a severe test itself.

Bill McBride, who upset former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno for the Democratic nomination, wants to end Mr. Bush's vouchers and focus on improving public schools through means other than testing and grading them. The Tampa lawyer, who is backed by the state teachers' union, wants to raise spending on schools, shrink class sizes, and improve pay for teachers.

"You can't drain money out of the public schools," Mr. McBride said in an interview, criticizing the governor's school choice programs. "We aren't making things better for everybody, and I'm going to try and change that."

With polls of likely voters showing Gov. Bush slightly ahead, Freshandra Willis and her mother are talking about the campaign issues like most people—only they're living them out, too. "I'm hoping he's re-elected," Freshandra said of the first-term governor. "A person should be able to go where they want to go [to school].

"Then again, in a way, I do sort of know what McBride's talking about, because you really do need to improve the public schools," she said. "But I really do want to see the choice last."

Impact of Vouchers

Belle Glade, a community of 16,000 people in far-western Palm Beach County, sits an hour's drive across thick, marshy sugar-cane fields from bustling West Palm Beach. Sugar cane brought modern people here: white executives from the North, immigrants from Cuba, then Haiti and Mexico, and black farmers from across the South.

"We're kind of the forgotten land," joked Rebecca Rionda, the development officer at Glades Day School, the private school Freshandra has attended since August.

Ms. Downing's parents—Freshandra's grandparents—came here from South Carolina to work the fields, with soil darker than rich chocolate cake. These days, Freshandra's mother supervises a state program for adolescents battling drug addiction.

Freshandra, a sunny 9th grader who would have entered public high school this fall, saw a TV commercial last summer for the school choice programs championed by Gov. Bush and immediately made her goal clear. She wanted to see what Glades Day School, the main private school in town, was really like.

Her only public school option was 1,400-student Glades Central High School. One of 10 schools in Florida where students are eligible for vouchers, it earned that designation through two failing grades on state report cards in the past four years. The most recent F came last spring, based on its students' state test scores.

Glades Central doesn't look the part of a failing school: It's a modern, two-story brick building with manicured grass and palm trees. The school is ringed by well-groomed athletic fields. The town has produced at least one professional football player a year for a decade.

Freshandra said she was dissatisfied with the quality of instruction from some of her teachers at the public middle school. The place was crowded and inadequately controlled, she said, and students weren't allowed to take textbooks home to study. The state-financed voucher, worth an average of about $3,900 for each student this year, was her way out.

Despite its high reputation locally, Glades Day School doesn't look as fancy as Glades Central. It's an older, smaller set of neatly kept white-stucco buildings beside low- hanging oaks. Dense green sugar-cane fields surround the campus, except for the crop-duster landing strip across the road.

For the first time, the percentage of white students at Glades Day School, which costs about $4,000 a year, has dipped under 50 percent—mostly because the vouchers and other school choice programs have brought in more minority students this fall, said Headmaster Mandy Perez, who was born in Cuba.

"After nine weeks, it's been a great, positive experience for us," he said of the influx.

About 100 of Glades Day School's 500 students use one of the state-financed choice programs, which include the vouchers, state-subsidized scholarships, and special education grants.

"I'm hoping the program continues no matter who wins the [gubernatorial] race," Mr. Perez said.

Several of Freshandra's friends have also used the state tuition vouchers to leave Glades Central High. Most, though, opted for other public schools—some up to 50 miles away—to avoid Glades Day.

"Most of them were like, 'What is wrong with you? They're going to be so preppy,' " Freshandra said, describing her friends' view of the new classmates she would find.

The change was hard on Ms. Downing. "All I've ever known was public school," she said. But she also saw her daughter's point.

"You're talking about your children's future, and right now the schools are still in a mess. I know what I'm talking about," Ms. Downing said.

In interviews this month, Lt. Gov. Brogan—speaking for Gov. Bush, who did not agree to an interview—and Mr. McBride agreed Florida must improve its schools. The candidates' plans to get there are where the differences begin.

Stark Differences

Mr. Brogan said the accomplishments of the state's Bush administration show how serious the governor is about education: $3 billion in new spending on K-12 schools the past four years; strict school accountability, with letter grades for every public school; and the school choice programs he and the governor see as a national model.

Seated in a conference room at the George Bush Republican Center near the Capitol in Tallahassee, Mr. Brogan defended the expansion of standardized tests and their use for determining school grades and voucher eligibility over the past four years.

"The test measures reading, writing, and math. What should we be preoccupied with?" he asked.

At least one voter and a future voter disagree. Freshandra and her mother grew tired of a seemingly endless supply of worksheets that helped students in public schools practice for the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, or FCAT.

"Right now, everything is focused on the test," Ms. Downing said.

One of the reasons the Florida Education Association, the state teachers' union, endorsed Mr. McBride was his position on tests: no more school grades from the state, and more focus on solutions for struggling public schools.

Mr. McBride, who is making his first run at elected office, can come across as a bit stiff. He began the interview at a friend's law office in downtown Tampa with his arms crossed, and his answers short. But the chill thawed as he talked about his education plan, arms down, leaning closer.

"I don't want to take anything from anyone. I want to give everyone the same opportunity," Mr. McBride said of seeking to end the school choice programs. "What I want to do is fund our schools adequately, and I believe the people of Florida agree with me on that."

School choice might expand further under a second Bush administration, Mr. Brogan said. "We've always said we're open to school choice initiatives that are brought forward," he said. "We still have much to do."

The two candidates also see the role of the state teachers' union very differently. Speaking on behalf of the Bush campaign, Mr. Brogan said the union wants to defend the status quo and win the election at all costs. Mr. McBride said he's proud to have the union's help and welcomes its participation in policy discussions.

Lt. Gov. Brogan suggested that the administration wants to "reform" collective bargaining, and wants to keep teacher-salary decisions local. School districts should use their state funding more wisely to address teacher shortages through bonuses in hard-to- fill jobs or schools, he said, and make better use of funding to help students who need extra attention.

"I want to see teacher-union bosses and school districts finally put their money where their mouth is," Mr. Brogan said. "I want them to have the guts to make the decisions they don't seem to be capable of making."

Another contrast between the campaigns is their stands on a ballot initiative that would establish maximum class sizes in kindergarten through 12th grade. Mr. McBride has made supporting it a central campaign theme. Gov. Bush warns it would divert billions of dollars each year from more valuable education efforts, and has proposed a cheaper alternative: a $2.8 billion plan to build 12,000 classrooms in five years to help make classes smaller.

Mr. McBride insists that the state can afford smaller classes if it's a main priority. He has proposed a 50-cent tax on every pack of cigarettes to raise money for schools.

"This is an issue we can't afford to ignore," he said. "If they vote to do it, we're going to get it done."

The Democrat opposes Florida's new "K-20" education system, which was a result of a change in state law backed by Gov. Bush that allows the governor to appoint a state board and education commissioner to oversee both the K-12 schools and state colleges and universities. ("Florida Breaking Down Walls Between K-12, Higher Ed.," Feb. 13, 2002.)

Mr. McBride backs a referendum on the November ballot that would bring back a state panel for higher education. "The current system was ill-conceived, and worse, ill- executed," he said.

Looking Ahead

People in Florida, including the folks here in Belle Glade, agree that the governor's race may be too close to call.

Hoping to unseat the incumbent, the teachers' union has thrown an army of volunteers behind Mr. McBride, and donated $1.5 million to his campaign.

"I want to see somebody who listens to people who are in the classroom," said Maureen S. Dinnen, the Florida Education Association's president. The union, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, decided to back Mr. McBride after he presented the clearest ideas on education of any candidate, she said.

Ms. Dinnen believes that if Gov. Bush keeps his seat, public schools will see four very tough years. "Why are we saying we can't make this public school system work?" she asked.

She predicts a court battle if the governor and Republican lawmakers—who currently control both houses of the legislature—try to eliminate collective bargaining.

The state also is appealing an August ruling that overturned Florida's vouchers on the grounds that the state constitution bars public money from going to religious institutions, including religious private schools. The judge allowed current voucher students to stay in school this year.

Here in Belle Glade, meanwhile, Ms. Downing won't say which way she'll vote—that's a personal question. But she praises Gov. Bush for making changes that have helped her daughter: "I do believe in his vouchers."

Freshandra can't vote yet, but for now, she's right where she wants to be.

Vol. 22, Issue 8, Pages 1,15

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