Be careful what you set your heart upon--for it will surely be yours.
When he wrote the above line the great James Baldwin, who’s A Talk to Teachers should be required reading in every school of education, was doing a riff on the age-old warning to be careful what you wish for because you might just get it.
Jeb Bush has dreamed his whole political life of plunging a dagger in the heart of public education. His fond hopes were probably best confessed in his second inaugural address as Florida's governor in 2003. Bush told the rapt crowd gathered to hail him, "There will be no greater tribute to our maturity as a society than if we can make these buildings around us empty of workers; as silent monuments to the time when government played a larger role than it deserved or could adequately fill." Bush could already see it in his mind’s eye. Yes, school buildings empty of teachers, monuments to an abandoned American crusade for universal public education.
On August 9, 2010 at 2:26 a.m., the Florida House of Representatives voted Jeb Bush closer to his life’s dream than he has ever been. At the very same moment they destroyed it. Jeb Bush, like Icarus, has finally flown too close to the sun. A sleeping giant has been roused.
Jeb Bush’s Waterloo comes at the end of a long road.
First give the man his due. He is a brilliant. As a youth he sensed how important US relations with Latin America would become and he made the region the focus of his studies in college. He foresaw how important Spanish-speaking immigrant voters would someday be and he made himself fluent in the language and took a Mexican woman as his bride. Early in the movement he sensed the political power of Christian fundamentalism and so he began pretending to be a man of faith.
He would have been President of the United States before his brother George but the first time Jeb Bush ran for governor in 1994 he lost. During the campaign Bush was asked by reporters what his administration might do for Black Floridians. He made a tactical blunder. He gave an honest answer. He said, "Probably nothing". Jeb Bush got 4% of the African-American vote and Lawton Chiles beat him in a close race.
Nothing if not politically astute, during his second run for governor in 1998 Bush teamed up with the conservative African-American Director of the Urban League of Greater Miami, T. Willard Fair, to establish Florida's first ever charter school in Miami's iconic Black community Liberty City. The Liberty Charter School served as an effective campaign prop for Bush and he received 17% of the Black vote this time around. Soon after taking office Bush severed his ties with Liberty Charter and appointed T. Willard Fair to the Florida Board of Education where he remains to this day giving slavish devotion to a man who he once told, "In my judgment, there is no greater person on this Earth than you. I love you."
Ultimately when historic Liberty Charter School failed and closed its doors due to a lack of funding The Miami Herald sought reaction from Bush. He wrote back, "I am not aware of what this is about."
Jeb Bush’s political modus operandi has always been to divide the people in the service of his only true constituency—wealthy business interests. That sliver of Florida’s population has always found the public school system to be little more than a boondoggle where billions of dollars escape their clutches. So throughout his first term as governor Jeb Bush relentlessly pounded on public schools with voucher programs, charter school promotion, merit pay plans, standardized testing schemes, larger classes and less money for schools struggling with poverty and deprivation.
In 2002 Florida voters were asked to consider the re-election of Jeb Bush and the Class-Size Amendment to the state Constitution on the same ballot. Both Bush and class-size reduction won. Jeb Bush graciously accepted the will of the voters that he serve a second term as governor but never stopped scheming to reverse the class-size mandate.
Florida Today reported, “Gov. Jeb Bush rolled out of bed the morning after his re-election party with a class-size headache.” The pain had been delivered by now U.S. Representative Kendrick Meek. As the most prominent public face of Florida’s Coalition to Reduce Class Size, Rep. Meek had won the first in a series of epic political battles to genuinely improve public schools. It became a series of battles after Gov. Bush refused to accept the will of Florida’s voters. Commenting on that, Rep. Meek has said, “Floridians expect their governor to be up at night thinking of ways to improve the lives of their children – not hatching ‘devious’ plans to keep them trapped in overcrowded classes.” Meek’s reference to devious plans came from another occasion when Bush was caught telling the truth. He was unaware of a tape recorder in the room.
During the 2005 session of the Florida Legislature Bush hatched his plan to gut the Class-Size Amendment. It deviously pit rural school districts and teachers against the larger urban school districts. The idea never got out of the Legislature thanks to a principled Republican State Senator named Alex Villalobos. Bush's retribution against him was swift and vindictive. Sen. Villalobos had been a champion of spinal cord research at the University of Miami and assistance to Miami Children's Hospital. Funding for both of those projects was among $27 million in cuts directed at South Florida counties in Bush's state budget that year. Apparently unsatisfied that the vetoes had chastened Villalobos, Bush engineered his political humiliation. The man who once was in line to become the first Cuban-born President of the Florida Senate was stripped of the majority leaders post and shown to his new office in the Capitol Building—a broom closet.
The same year, as the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments in yet another attempt to win private school vouchers, proto-typical Bush-backer, Tampa millionaire venture capitalist John Kirtley bused hundreds of school skipping children and their parents to Tallahassee to rally for the governor's program. Many of the same parents and their children were recalled to the Capitol on February 15, 2006 to hear Gov. Bush announce that he would lead a drive to resurrect his thrice declared unconstitutional school voucher program by way of amending the Florida Constitution. With a sense of neither irony nor shame Jeb Bush told his predominantly African-American audience, "In Florida and the United States today, if you've got money you can make a choice. What about the children whose parents don't have the ability based on income to make that choice? Don't they have the same dreams? God gives every child the ability to learn. God does that!"
Although term limits forced Jeb Bush to give up his Tallahassee office at the end of 2006, it did not thwart his determination to keep the apparatus of state government under his control. To this day Gov. Charlie Crist can only dream of having as much influence over education policy in the state as Jeb Bush. Bush loyalists were left on the Florida Board of Education and throughout the Florida Department of Education bureaucracy. In 2007 his minions were shot through the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission which meets every twenty years and has the extraordinary power to go directly to the voters with amendments to the State Constitution. When his former chief of staff as governor, Patricia Levesque, got Bush’s anti-public schools wish list through the Commission, the two traded celebratory text messages.
Funny when State Senator John Thrasher from Jacksonville won passage of Senate Bill 6 he called Jeb Bush immediately too!
Public school teachers in Florida, 168,000 of them, have been frightened and confused by Jeb Bush's success in the Legislature. They have had to ponder over how ideas so clearly absurd and destructive could win the votes of legislators. They have asked why rationality seems to hold no sway in this matter. The short answer is of course that money trumps reason in the Legislature. In fact money trumps all! What Jeb Bush and the Chamber of Commerce and the builders and the developers want they get in the Florida Legislature.
But the teacher's initial fear is giving way to something else. They are calling in sick in Miami-Dade. Their student allies are walking out of classrooms and into the streets in protest. Their parent allies have conducted a hunger strike and marched up and down the state on their behalf. Even if Gov. Crist fails to muster the courage to veto the teachers will stop whatever legislation Bush wins in the implementation phase. I know from a quarter century of teaching experience that we run the schools in practice and while we are deferential to authority we're not suicidal. We will see to our survival and feed our families.
A sleeping giant has been roused.
Paul A. Moore
Public School Teacher
Miami Carol City High School