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Bush In Bind On Hispanic Legislators' FCAT Plan…Compromise Offered

Bush In Bind On Hispanic Legislators' FCAT Plan

Peter Wallsten is The Herald's Capital Bureau chief

April 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

A fluent Spanish-speaker and husband of a Mexican American, Gov. Jeb Bush has always won broad support across Florida's diverse Hispanic neighborhoods -- from Republicans in Little Havana to the Puerto Rican Democrats who increasingly dominate the politics of suburban Orlando.

His brother, President Bush, did not enjoy the same success in 2000, losing enough of those heavily Hispanic Central Florida precincts that he might be just another rancher in Crawford, Texas, today but for a screwed-up butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County.

But now, after three years in which the Republicans have spent millions wooing the state's non-Cuban Hispanic ''swing'' voters -- electing Florida's first Puerto Rican Republican legislator, for example -- Gov. Bush is in a bind that could jeopardize those gains just in time to hurt the president's reelection.

The problem for the governor is that Hispanic lawmakers want payback for their loyal support: a loosening of the new graduation standards that could prevent hundreds, if not thousands, of Spanish-speaking high school seniors from graduating because they failed a test offered only in English.


Bush is adamant that he will not let lawmakers ''gut'' his A+ school accountability plan, which relies heavily on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The governor made that point when The Herald first asked him about the FCAT legislation and again last week when he threatened to veto the entire state budget if money is not included to reward high-performing schools under his plan.

''Not on my watch,'' he said. ``I'm not kidding.''

But then he hosted Hispanic legislators at the Governor's Mansion for a lunch of rice and beans, and later addressed a Puerto Rican delegation in the Capitol. At both events the FCAT question would not die.

'I could see in his eyes the quandary of, `Would I be lowering standards in order to be understanding?' '' recalled state Rep. Ralph Arza, a Cuban-born high school teacher from Hialeah who attended the lunch.

There were similar reports from the session with Puerto Ricans, at which Bush seemed to backpedal by saying he would take a closer look at the legislation's effect before casting judgment.

'I knew he was uncomfortable because he didn't give a straight-up, `No problem, I'm with you,' '' said former Democratic state Rep. Tony Suarez, a Puerto Rican who changed his registration to the GOP last year after intense lobbying by Bush and other Republican leaders eager for symbolic victories.

While some lawmakers initially offered sweeping changes such as eliminating the FCAT requirement altogether, the legislation likely to land on Bush's desk is expected to be far narrower, giving a hand only to seniors who have been in the country a few years and continue to struggle with English -- a number Arza estimates to be in the hundreds statewide.


It is not likely to include some of the changes offered by several black lawmakers who say the test is racially biased, although a deal struck by Hispanic and black leaders would call for the state education department to study the FCAT's faults and find solutions.

That compromise, Arza said, should be enough to win Bush over.

That, and the symbolic political significance that the measure's primary House sponsor is Rep. John Quiñones of Orlando, who became the Legislature's first Puerto Rican Republican last year thanks to millions of dollars in assistance from Bush's GOP.

Days after his victory, then-Republican Party Chairman Al Cárdenas hosted Quiñones in Tallahassee for a celebratory news conference, hailing the freshman lawmaker as the new GOP face of Florida.

To slam the door on Quiñones now would be tantamount to telling Florida's fast-growing Puerto Rican population -- numbering close to a half-million -- that the president has no interest in their votes next year.

That's the political reality for Florida's governor, whose every move reflects on his brother's ability to win the state's 27 electoral votes and secure reelection.


''This [FCAT bill] is perceived as a good thing,'' said Suarez, who hosts a radio talk show in Orlando that focuses on Puerto Rican politics.

``He's got a lot of pressure on this.''

Suarez predicted Bush would have no choice but to compromise in the end.

Then, suggesting the governor may need a sounding board, Suarez said: ``I think I'll send him a little e-mail. I hope he treads carefully.''

Hispanic Legislators Offer FCAT Compromise


April 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

TALLAHASSEE -Hispanic lawmakers, who have spent weeks pushing legislation to allow some high school seniors to graduate even if they fail the tough new Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, have backed off those plans.

A compromise proposal, introduced on Monday, would allow any senior, not just those who speak English as a second language, to earn their GED over the summer or enter a community college with a certificate of completion rather than a diploma.

The bill's sponsor, John Quiñones, a Republican from the Orlando area, said he and others worked out the last-minute compromise because his earlier proposal divided lawmakers and had been resisted by Gov. Jeb Bush.

''There was a sense that we were not doing enough for all children,'' Quiñones said. ``There was some resentment and resistance that this was only serving one segment of society. . . . I think this is the best compromise.''

The original bill had caused a furor among lawmakers and the governor, who felt it would undermine the FCAT. Although Bush first opposed the measure outright, he later told members of a Puerto Rican delegation that he would consider it. The governor could not be reached for comment late Monday, but the proposal has the blessing of his appointed Board of Education.

The original bill would have allowed English for Speakers of Other Languages students who have been in the country less than two years, and who had a grade point average of 2.5 or better, to graduate even if they failed the FCAT.

The new proposal would:

•  Allow students who fail their last attempt at the FCAT to take a GED test over the summer.

•  Allow community colleges to accept seniors with a certificate of completion in lieu of a high school diploma. Once enrolled in college, students must take remedial courses.

•  Allow those who bypass college to enroll in an adult education program where they can retake the FCAT for an unlimited number of times until they pass.

•  Ask the state Board of Education to study whether college placement tests such as the PSAT and the SAT can be used as alternatives to the FCAT in the future.

Thousands of South Florida seniors, in limbo over whether they could enter college this fall, could be affected by the changes.

Former opponents of the original bill called the new proposal much improved.

Rep. Ed Jennings Jr., a Gainesville Democrat who voted against the original proposal, praised the new bill.

''This no longer treats foreign-born kids differently than those who have been here for five generations but have the same problem passing this test,'' Jennings said.

Jennings and others said they hoped the proposal would eventually lead to a reexamination of the FCAT.

''This should be the first step to recognizing that the FCAT should not be the end-all and the be-all in the lives of these children,'' he said.

The bill, which still has two more stops in the Senate, could be heard by the full House later this week.

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