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Former Florida Schools Chief Seeks Graham's Senate Seat

School issues and statewide elections have become as indelibly linked as sunshine and thin beachwear in Florida, a vital political battleground in 2004. So it seems logical that one of the state's most closely watched races for federal office in recent memory has drawn Betty Castor, a former teacher, university president, and Florida commissioner of education.

Betty Castor

Ms. Castor, 62, who served as state schools chief from 1987 to 1993, is seeking the U.S. Senate seat that will be vacated next year by Bob Graham, a Democrat who announced last month that he would not seek a fourth term. Ms. Castor and others had declared an interest in the seat months ago, when Sen. Graham was still a contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, an effort he has since abandoned.

She faces competition in the August 2004 Democratic primary from a field that includes Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Fort Lauderdale. A poll in the Orlando Sentinel last month showed Ms. Castor leading the Democratic race. Republican hopefuls in the election so far include former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum and the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Johnnie Byrd.

"Education has been and will continue to be a big issue in Florida," Ms. Castor said in an interview last week. "I've seen education at all levels, and it has really helped me understand the synergy between education and the economy, which is of great importance to people across the state."

Ms. Castor vowed that as a senator, she would seek increases in the maximum Pell Grant award for low-income college students, as well as changes to the No Child Left Behind Act that, she says, would make the law fairer to states and school districts.

"You have an awful lot of testing going on and tremendous confusion," she said.

—Sean Cavanagh

The Kerry Plan

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has unfurled plans to set up a new trust fund for public schools and rewrite key portions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Sen. John Kerry

The Democratic presidential contender's idea, announced Nov. 25, is to circumvent the annual appropriations process in Congress by locking in federal aid that would be dedicated to No Child Left Behind Act programs and special education. A fact sheet issued by his campaign estimates current spending under that law at about $24 billion, and says his fund would ensure $35 billion per year by 2008.

He said that with the National Education Trust Fund, "never again will teachers and parents and students have to worry about the whims of politicians in Washington."

Mr. Kerry also said he wants to revise the bipartisan No Child Left Behind law, which he voted for in 2001. He criticizes the measure for judging schools solely on test scores, saying he would change the federal definition for making "adequate yearly progress," which is at the heart of the law's accountability provisions.

—Erik W. Robelen

Spanish Inquisition

A centrist Democratic group wants to get out the message that President Bush broke his promises on education and has been anything but a buen amigo to the Latino community.

The New Democrat Network, a Washington-based group that promotes moderate candidates for office, has begun airing commercials on Spanish-language TV in Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas that criticize the president for, among other things, not fully funding the No Child Left Behind law.

"He promised us he would invest $18 billion for the poorest schools," one ad says in Spanish. "But now he wants to spend billions less." The ad refers to the original agreement under the school improvement law to subsidize Title I schools at $18.5 billion in the 2004 budget, according to the Democrat network. The president's fiscal 2004 budget proposed only $12.4 billion for Title I, two-thirds of what was agreed on, the group says.

"President Bush, why did you break your promise?" a young girl asks in the ad. The Bush administration has consistently argued that ample funding is being provided for states and districts to carry out the law.

—John Gehring

Vol. 23, Issue 15, Page 24

Published in Print: December 10, 2003, as Campaign Notebook
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