The Blog

The Battle of Big Education

In the Florida gubernatorial race, education is front and center. Both Bill McBride and Jeb Bush claim to be reformers, but only one of them is.

11:00 PM, Oct 28, 2002 • By BETH HENARY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IN THE FIRST Florida gubernatorial debate on September 27, Republican governor Jeb Bush and Democratic challenger Bill McBride scuffled over the merits of the governor's One Florida executive order, which abolished affirmative action in state contracting and university admissions. McBride said he thinks it important to "get everybody to the same starting point," signaling his opposition to One Florida, while Bush insisted that his program allowed state business to be conducted more fairly. McBride, he asserted, supported the "old way."

Florida voters list education as their number-one priority, and to McBride's credit he has more or less turned the race into a single-issue contest. Now with seven days to go in the campaign, Bush must make a final push to convince Floridians his reforms are working, while McBride promises raises for teachers and smaller class sizes. But who has the edge on what has turned out to be the issue of this race?

The concept of merit is central to Gov. Bush's approach to education. Elected in 1998 as an education reformer, Jeb Bush shook up the system. Under his leadership, Florida started using a state standardized test to give schools grades (A-F), with extra funds going to improving schools and those with good grades. Kids in perennially bad schools are offered vouchers to attend private ones. A new Bush proposal expand a program that pays teachers extra for seeking national certification and serving as mentors to other teachers. On the higher education front, Bush unilaterally abolished affirmative action for minorities in university admissions with One Florida.

McBride favors an immediate $2,500 across-the-board pay hike for teachers. He believes this will help recruit the new teachers the state will need if voters pass two constitutional amendments on the ballot--one would provide kindergarten for all 4-year-olds whose parents request it, and the other would reduce class size. Additional planks in McBride's lengthy education platform are eliminating the grading of schools and improving early childhood intervention. (He supports the class-size amendment; Bush opposes it.) McBride, though, has had difficulty explaining how he would pay for all he wants to accomplish, admitting in his second debate with Bush that the class-size amendment might cost $15 billion, about one quarter of the state budget. (In a related note, the Florida Education Association has been his biggest organization donor, giving more than $1.5 million for primary ads alone, and Cathy Kelly of the FEA is on loan as his campaign manager.)

Bush has not been shy about trumpeting his initiatives' success. The more controversial, the harder he tries to convince Floridians of his good intentions. This has been particularly true of One Florida, launched in 1999. The governor's office has issued statistics showing that eliminating affirmative action hasn't been as devastating for minorities as some supposed it might be: Enrollment percentages for minorities at most schools have fluctuated only slightly, thanks in part to expanded outreach and a provision that allows the top 20 percent of graduating seniors from each high school to enroll in a state university. A number of university presidents--a group that has traditionally fought for affirmative action--have praised the governor's initiative.

"I know in my heart that we're on the right track," Bush said recently in Orlando, calling racial preferences a "soft bigotry of low expectations," a phrase uttered often by other members of the Bush political family.

Among minorities Bush stands to fare quite well. He is expected to win a majority of the Hispanic vote, and to hold approximately the 12 percent of blacks he garnered in 1998. In his losing bid to defeat Democrat Lawton Chiles in 1994, Bush got a paltry 4 percent of the black vote; this year he's the honorary campaign chair for the United Negro College Fund.

Even as it endorsed McBride for governor, the St. Petersburg Times tried to allay some of the excessive criticism surrounding One Florida. "[Bush's] One Florida initiative hasn't been the disaster his critics claim," the Times editorialized. "The evidence shows that minorities have fared relatively well under One Florida's alternative to race-based politics in university admissions and government contracts."

So does McBride want to bring back affirmative action even though its elimination hasn't changed much? Apparently. He has claimed that the governor's plan "took away a lot of opportunities for people," and that preferences aren't the "old way," but the "American way."

Beth Henary is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.