States

Education at Issue in Fla. Race to Replace Gov. Bush

By Michele McNeil — September 12, 2006 4 min read
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The stage for the Florida governor’s race is finally set.

In a matchup determined by last week’s primary, a Republican former education commissioner under outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush will square off against a Democratic congressman and former state lawmaker in the campaign leading up to the Nov. 7 election that is likely to focus heavily on education.

In the Sept. 5 Republican primary, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, who served with Gov. Bush as education commissioner for two years, easily beat another former education commissioner, Tom Gallagher. Mr. Crist won 64 percent of the vote to Mr. Gallagher’s 33 percent, according to unofficial results from the Florida Department of State’s division of elections.

Mr. Crist will face U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, who beat state Sen. Rod Smith by 47 percent to 41 percent, according to unofficial tallies from the Democratic primary the same day.

Mr. Crist and Mr. Davis will fight to replace a popular Republican governor whose education ideas have helped shape national trends. Under Gov. Bush, Florida instituted a system of standards and accountability that uses test scores to reward and penalize schools, and vouchers to help some students leave persistently failing schools. He’s also tried to strengthen reading proficiency in the early grades by putting literacy coaches in elementary schools. Gov. Bush, who took office in 1999, is prevented by term limits from running for re-election.

Proposals on Spending

While Mr. Crist is pledging to carry on many of Gov. Bush’s initiatives, Mr. Davis wants to undo what he calls the governor’s “failed education experiments.”

And that makes the 2006 general election, in part, a vote on Gov. Bush’s education initiatives.

“One of the major issues, without a doubt, is the legacy left by Bush,” said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, in Gainesville.

Mr. Crist was elected in 2000 as Florida’s education commissioner and served until he was elected attorney general in 2002. Mr. Crist was Florida’s last elected education commissioner; the position is now appointed. He will undoubtedly play to Mr. Bush’s overall popularity to try to keep the governor’s office in Republican hands in a race closely watched nationwide.

He’s pledging to continue Gov. Bush’s fight for a constitutional amendment to allow vouchers for public school students to attend private schools, a hallmark piece of the governor’s education initiative that was struck down earlier this year by the Florida Supreme Court. (“Fla. Court: Vouchers Unconstitutional,” Jan. 11, 2006.)

Mr. Crist wants to require schools to spend at least 65 percent of their funding in the classroom, and not on administrative expenses—an idea promoted nationally as “the 65 percent solution.” And he wants to put more money into teacher salaries, but favors awarding raises to top-performing teachers.

Mr. Davis, the Democrat, has served in U.S. House of Representatives since 1997, when he ended an eight-year tenure in the Florida House. Highlights of his education platform include spending $700 million in his first year in office for across-the-board teacher pay raises, which would average $3,835 per educator, including benefits. To pay for that plan, Mr. Davis would end bonuses for schools and teachers based on students’ Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, thus dismantling a key policy advanced by Gov. Bush. Mr. Davis also wants to create a tax credit for businesses that donate money to help give teachers a raise, according to his platform.

FCAT, Class Size

In addition, Mr. Davis wants to change the often-criticized FCAT into a diagnostic tool that’s not used to penalize schools and use $2 billion from the state surplus to build classrooms to reduce class sizes.

Mr. Davis touts the fact that as the majority leader in the Florida House in the mid-1990s, he helped pass a law reducing class sizes in the state’s public schools. Later, in 2002, voters approved a constitutional amendment to reduce class size—an expensive proposition that could cost more than $1 billion a year, and which Gov. Bush has sought to change.

The class-size amendment likely won’t be much of a factor in the November election because both major-party candidates support it. But how they plan to pay for it could be an issue.

Education groups, such as the Florida Education Association, expect to see the widest divides on vouchers, the use of the FCAT, and teacher compensation. Such groups will try to keep the candidates focused on debating education, and not on what they would see as fringe issues that could emerge as the campaign heats up.

“We’re trying to keep education on the forefront,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida teachers’ union, an affiliate of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. The union typically backs Democratic candidates and was scheduled to decide late last week whether to endorse Mr. Davis.

“[Education] is always a big issue with voters, and will be this year,” Mr. Pudlow said. “In fact, it is the number-one issue with voters.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Education at Issue in Fla. Race to Replace Gov. Bush

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