Past Fla. Schools Chiefs Seek Gov. Bush’s Job
Two former commissioners square off in GOP primary, share incumbent’s priorities.
Gov. Jeb Bush won’t be on the Republican ballot in Florida’s Sept. 5 primary for governor, but two of his former education commissioners will be. And the outcome will set the stage for a fall showdown that is expected to be, in part, a referendum on the two-term governor’s education policies.
Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher helped Gov. Bush implement his A-Plus school improvement plan, and each vows to maintain his education legacy by stressing accountability and school choice. Both are playing up their ties to the incumbent, even though some of Gov. Bush’s education ideas—such as using the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to grade schools and award vouchers—aren’t nearly as popular as he is. The only major difference between the two Republican candidates is over a 2002 voter-approved amendment to reduce class sizes.
The winner of the GOP primary will face either U.S. Rep. Jim Davis or state Sen. Rod Smith, who are the front-runners for the Democratic nomination, in the Nov. 7 general election. Gov. Bush is prevented by the state constitution from seeking a third consecutive term.
The Florida governor’s race undoubtedly will be closely watched across the country. After all, the state has helped decide the outcome of presidential elections, and Democrats want to wrest from Republicans an office now held by President Bush’s 53-year-old brother. In addition, Florida has been a trendsetter in education policy, especially on testing, accountability, and school choice.
“Education is potentially the most important issue in Florida now,” said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. “The Republicans have pretty much staked out their claims on Jeb Bush’s record, and that could hurt them in the general election because some of those education policies aren’t very popular.”
Not Choosing Sides
Mr. Gallagher, who is now the state’s chief financial officer, was elected education commissioner in 1998 and served until 2001. It was a tumultuous tenure that included implementing Gov. Bush’s controversial accountability plan that uses students’ FCAT scores to grade, penalize, and reward schools.
Mr. Crist, who is the state attorney general, succeeded Mr. Gallagher and served as the state’s top school official through most of 2002, during which time he enforced the school grading system and helped put early-reading programs in place. He was the last elected education commissioner; the state schools chief is now appointed by the governor.
Gov. Bush has said he won’t endorse either Republican candidate because he doesn’t want to pick sides.
Mr. Crist may not need such backing.
According to a July poll by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., Mr. Crist was leading Mr. Gallagher 55 percent to 32 percent among 340 likely Republican primary voters surveyed. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.3 percentage points. And by June 30, Mr. Crist had raised $10.6 million to Mr. Gallagher’s $7.8 million, according to Florida campaign-finance records.
The difference between the two Republicans on education issues is much narrower, according to their respective plans.
Both want to improve high school graduation rates. Mr. Gallagher’s target is 90 percent by 2020. Mr. Crist is more ambitious: He wants to hit 95 percent by 2015. The two support the so-called “65 percent solution,” a widely promoted policy measure requiring that at least that percentage of school funding be directed to the classroom, and not to such costs as administrative overhead. And both want to boost teacher pay to help improve schools.
Mr. Gallagher also wants to see voters change the Florida Constitution to protect the state’s voucher programs and Mr. Crist’s plan champions such a change as well.
Mr. Gallagher, however, was slow to embrace the use of tax dollars to help pay for private school tuition; he opposed the idea in a failed 1994 run for governor. But now he boasts that he gave out the first Opportunity Scholarships to Florida parents in 1999, his first year as the education commissioner. Those scholarships, which allow students at failing public schools to go to another public or private school, were ruled unconstitutional by the state supreme court earlier this year. ("Fla. Court: Vouchers Unconstitutional," June 11, 2006.)
“When I handed out those scholarships, those parents were so excited about the opportunity to send their children to another school,” Mr. Gallagher said in an interview last week.
Mr. Crist did not return several calls seeking comment about his education ideas.
Both Republican candidates’ plans call for spending more money on teacher pay, but neither details how the state would pay for such plans. Mr. Gallagher said he would start by using savings from the “65 percent solution” to fund those initiatives.
There is one big difference between the candidates: their positions on the class-size amendment that was added to the Florida Constitution by voters in 2002 over the opposition of Gov. Bush. The amendment requires the state to lower class sizes to specific levels by 2010, a daunting and expensive task in the view of many policymakers. State officials have estimated that the class-size amendment could cost the state more than $1 billion a year.
Mr. Gallagher favors watering down the amendment so that the requirement is more flexible; Mr. Crist supports figuring out a way to implement it as is.
Their differences, at least on education policy, pretty much end there.
“Really, both of them are saying basically the same thing,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The teachers’ union has already announced it will support the Democratic nominee for governor. “After the primary, then we’re really going to see the divide over education widen,” Mr. Pudlow said. Democrats and Republicans running for governor pose at a May 21 forum. From left, state Sen. Rod Smith, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, Attorney General Charlie Crist, and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis.
Vol. 25, Issue 44, Pages 22,24
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