FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Sunshine State is known for many great things. Beaches. Palm trees. Conch fritters. No state income tax. Disney World.
The public education system, however, has not been on the list of excellent Florida qualities. The state ranks 42nd in spending per pupil. It is 30th in teacher pay. More than a fifth of its residents have no high school diploma - placing Florida behind all but 15 states. It receives more federal funding for disadvantaged students than all but three states.
In 1998, when Republican Jeb Bush, the president's brother, first ran for governor, 48 percent of Florida's students were dropping out before getting a high school diploma, and exactly half of Florida's fourth graders were not able to read at grade level. A survey showed that more than one-third of Florida's ninth graders had a D or F grade average.
Jeb Bush made education one of the most prominent issues of his campaign, promising to bring accountability and improvements to a system in which many Floridians had lost faith. And when he won the statehouse, he quickly pushed his changes through the legislature.
The new education plan, dubbed A+, placed strong emphasis on a new statewide student-testing program. At the same time, then Texas Gov. George W. Bush pushed through a similar program in his state. It laid the foundation for the No Child Left Behind federal education reforms he touted during the 2000 campaign and eventually pushed through Congress.
Those two programs -- one federal and one state -- are on a collision course this summer. That's when new test results could show that many of state's schools pass the Florida A+ standards while failing to show sufficient improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind rules. Failing to make progress on the federal standards would require the state to let the parents of students in failing schools transfer their children to better-performing alternatives.
Ninety-four percent of Florida's schools passed the state standards but only 13 percent passed the federal ones, according to a recent press release from Jim Davis, the Democratic congressman who represents Tampa and St. Petersburg. More than a few educators in Florida are worried that massive transfers could destroy the public education system in the state.
"I've said to the DOE and to the federal government that if you really tried to implement No Child Left Behind in Florida to the fullest extent as by the law it would cause total chaos in the state," said Frank Till, superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, the fifth largest district in the country. "There's no way you can find space for the kids at 1,700 schools."
The issue in Florida is not just about the confusion over two sets of standards, but the underlying theme behind both -- the end of so-called social promotion of students and the concept of using high-stakes standardized testing to determine failure and success.
Florida, of course, was at the center of the 2000 presidential storm, with its butterfly ballots and hanging chads and Election-Day chaos. All indications are that the state remains closely divided along partisan lines, and it's considered a key battleground state by the campaigns of both President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry. A poll of 600 likely Florida voters conducted in mid-May by the nonpartisan American Research Group showed the race at a virtual tie, with Bush at 47 percent and Kerry at 46 percent. Independent Ralph Nader was at 3 percent. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The south Florida counties of Broward and Miami-Dade were at the center of the 2000 presidential recount and are home to the state's education reform movement. Interviews with voters, activists and officials in Broward and Miami-Dade make it clear that the Republican vision for using high-stakes tests to hold schools accountable is motivating such key Democratic constituencies as unionized teachers and the African American and Hispanic communities.
Although there are no current polls ranking important issues, most political experts here say education will be toward the top of the list, along with health care and homeland security, and right behind Iraq and the economy. In recent weeks, political television ads focusing on education have followed visits from Kerry, Bush, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie - visits that all focused on education.
"It's going to be a big issue, just as it was [in the governor's race] in 2002," said state Democratic Party spokeswoman Allie Merzer. "Both Bush administrations have failed Florida's students incredibly."
But Merzer was quick to note that 2002 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride's campaign against Gov. Bush failed horribly after focusing almost completely on education. "Health care, the economy, what's happening with the war. Those will all be big issues, too. [Focusing on education] is what McBride tried to do in 2002, and it didn't work out so well."
Republicans have been winning elections and making the argument that testing in Florida is making the schools better. The graduation rate increased from 52 to 65 percent in 2002, and was above 50 percent in all racial and ethnic groups. In 2004, for the first time, more than half of students who take the statewide tests are reading at or above grade level.
In April, the state released the sixth year of results for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), the statewide standardized test used for both the state and federal programs. Since the test's inception, results show marked improvement among all students, with the sharpest gains among minority students.
In April, Gov. Bush touted the results at a press conference at Coral Park Elementary School in Miami. "When we ended social promotion and raised standards for our high school seniors last year, many were skeptical," he said. "Today's results show Florida is moving in the right direction, with more students reading on grade level and significant improvement and opportunities among those who have struggled most."
Testing is not new to Florida's school kids. The state has required graduating seniors to pass a competency test for 20 years, said Frances Marine, communication director of the Florida Department of Education. The A+ plan merely increased the level of proficiency required for graduation from an 8th-grade to a 10th-grade level. Marine said no one ever complained about the previous testing requirement until Gov. Bush began pushing his A+ plan, a sign that the opposition is playing politics. "Where was the outrage before?" she asked
Gov. Bush's supporters and advisers in Florida say the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has integrated nicely with the state's existing testing formula. The goal of NCLB is to raise reading and math proficiency to 100 percent for all students in the country by 2014. Unlike the A+ plan, which grades schools on the aggregate scores of all their students, NCLB measures the performance of subgroups of students in reading and math and requires all groups -- defined by racial, ethnic, income and other factors -- to keep improving until all groups reach the 100 percent goal. These different scoring techniques have given some schools passing grades under the state A+ plan but failing grades under NCLB.
Even as the combination of the two systems has caused widespread confusion, state officials say it all ads up to more accountability, higher standards and ultimately a better education.
"God has given every child an opportunity to learn, and the laws now facilitate that goal," Florida Education Commissioner Jim Horne said in an interview last month.
Among the criticisms of NCLB in Florida -- opponents say that it de-emphasizes important subjects such as history and it is an unfunded federal mandate -- perhaps the most frequent and politically volatile is the charge that both tests are culturally biased. Many parents and activists are aghast at the numbers of African American and Hispanic students who are being held back or kept from graduating by failing scores on the FCAT. In heavily minority Miami-Dade County alone, according to a recent report by the Miami Herald, about 9,100 third graders -- or about 29 percent -- failed the FCAT and could be held back. Critics say the ultimate goal of A+ and NCLB is the undermining of public education and the advocacy of vouchers.
A group led by Victor T. Curry, the well-known pastor of Miami's New Birth Baptist Church, is calling for a boycott of Florida's tourism and citrus industries until A+ is changed or repealed.
Curry, who is also president of the city's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has also worked with another vocal critic, state Sen. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Miami), to organize protests against education policies at the state capitol in Tallahassee and at Florida International University in Miami.
"There is no one-size-fits-all solution for teaching children," said Wilson, who is African American. "I've seen children with 3.0 grade averages and activities and public service who have failed the FCAT and did not receive a diploma."
If schools fail to meet federal progress expectations, then students at that school are given the opportunity to transfer -- along with corresponding student funding -- to a passing school. Wilson said that the motivation for the Republican-led reforms was "destruction of the public schools. Privatization is what drives this administration from the president on down."
Benjamin J. Williams, an African American member of the School Board of Broward County, agreed with that assessment.
"This came about for a political reason. Vouchers. They knew exactly where the F schools were going to fall -- in most of the minority schools. Degrading."
Deedara Hicks, the African American principal of Broward Estates Elementary disagrees. "In education, accountability means children are learning," she said. "Being very familiar with the FCAT, I do not believe you can teach to it. . . . If you teach kids the Sunshine State Standards on which the FCAT is based, they will do well. How do I know? I have a child myself that's a good reader. I don't test prep her. But she makes [top level scores] every year."
MacKay Jimeson, a Florida Education Department spokesman, emphasized that the standards for the test were created by people who are most qualified to know what a child should know and when that child should know it -- professional educators. He said the proof is in the numbers.
"Generally, the numbers show that children are learning in this state," he said. "And now when a student receives a high school diploma, it's meaningful. It's truly a ticket to opportunity as they enter the workplace or move on to higher education."
Democrats, presuming that the overwhelming majority of blacks will vote for Kerry, are pushing education to the forefront of the presidential contest in Florida in an effort to boost turnout among African Americans. In May, Kerry blasted President Bush on a campaign visit to Florida for shortchanging NCLB by $9.5 billion in the 2005 budget. President Bush's campaign says federal education spending has increased by 49 percent under the current administration.
The national chairmen of both parties later visited Florida on the same day and mentioned education prominently. At a stop in Tampa, Democratic Party Chairman McAuliffe announced that Democrats would work with an independent political organization backed by the National Education Association teachers' union to oppose NCLB nationally.
But the real fight may be over Hispanic voters, a traditionally Democratic group that Bush helped bring more into the Republican camp in 2000. Since December, the New Democratic Network, a so-called "527" group that can accept unlimited donations from any source, including corporations and unions, has been pouring money into Spanish-language television ads in Florida. According to NDN Vice President Maria Cardona, the group's most effective ad has been one that levels an implicit criticism at NCLB.
Even some staunchly Republican Hispanics have been critical of the program. Some have been getting an earful from their constituents, many of whose children struggle with English and are being held back or kept from receiving diplomas. Last year, state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla (R-Miami) co-sponsored a bill with Wilson that allowed seniors who didn't pass the FCAT to go to community college. Gov. Bush signed that bill into law.
The Bush campaign responded with its own Spanish-language ad in Florida. It accuses Kerry -- who voted for NCLB in 2001 -- of flip-flopping for political expediency. "John Kerry praised the president's reforms. Even voted for them," the ad says. "But now, under pressure from education unions, Kerry has changed his mind. Kerry's new plan: less accountability to parents."
But not all minorities oppose the measure, and not all of its opponents are minorities. Some believe it is just the right prescription for curing what ails the public schools -- a lack of accountability among teachers and administrators.
Earlier this year, a group called the Florida African American Education Alliance, unveiled an ad on the opening day of the legislative session praising Gov. Bush's efforts at raising the reading achievement levels for black students and increasing the number of black students taking college entrance exams. Democrats quickly countered that the ad was just a ploy to get blacks to vote for President Bush in November.
Gloria Pipkin, a white 57-year-old educator and author who lives in Lynn Haven, a small town on the Florida Panhandle, has organized a group called the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform (FCAR). Her group consists mostly of educated, affluent whites who are alarmed at what they see as the undermining of a well-rounded education. Like Wilson and Curry, FCAR's members believe that the education system needs to be improved, but don't believe high-stakes testing is a means to achieve that goal.
FCAR is a nonpartisan and nonprofit grassroots organization with a "shoe-string" budget, Pipkin said. Hundreds of parents, educators and students are working in FCAR to repeal the A+ mandates.
"I'm sure the motives were noble and honorable, but whenever high-stakes are attached to any test -- bonuses for teachers, school funding -- the whole system becomes deformed and distorted by test scores, and we confuse that with learning and gaining," Pipkin said, arguing that subjects such as social studies and creative writing are being phased out to make way for test preparation. "I see high-stakes testing as a very real threat to deep thinking, critical thinking and imaginative thinking…All we're concerned about now is taking a test."