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Obama, Jeb Bush make strange bedfellows at Florida school event

President Obama and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, appear together at a South Florida high school to tout its dramatic turnaround in performance and to stress federal investment in education. About 200 area teachers picketed outside the event.

March 04, 2011|By James Oliphant and Christi Parsons, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Miami and Washington — While battles rage in Wisconsin and Ohio over the collective-bargaining rights of teachers and other public employees, President Obama stood side-by-side Friday in South Florida at an education-themed event with former Gov. Jeb Bush, the man that many teachers in this state blame for threatening their jobs.

The president came to Miami Central Senior High School to tout its dramatic turnaround in student performance and to underscore the importance of federal investment in education at a time when almost every domestic program sits atop a congressional chopping block.

But Obama's decision to appear with Bush, viewed as a principal Republican driver of education reform in Florida and nationwide, didn't sit well with about 200 area teachers who mounted a demonstration outside the school, in a well-worn neighborhood about six miles north of downtown Miami.

"We were dismayed that President Obama would choose to be at Central Senior High with former Gov. Bush, who worked to close this very school," said Karen Aronowitz, president of the local teachers' union, United Teachers of Dade, while the president spoke inside.

Bush, she said, "supports legislation to break our unions and silence our teachers."

One protester held up a sign that read: "Mr. President, You Didn't Do Your Homework."

When Bush became governor in 1999, he pushed for charter schools, standardized tests and tying teacher pay to performance. Obama has also supported charter schools and teacher accountability as part of his reform efforts.

"There's a lot more to do. Educational achievement is not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue," Bush said at the Miami Central Senior High event, where he introduced the president.

Obama emerged into the high school gymnasium to a deafening roar from the more than 800 students in attendance.

While advocating for his proposal to freeze domestic spending for five years -- which has been rejected as insufficient by Republicans on Capitol Hill -- Obama said funds for education must be spared.

"I want everybody to understand, our job is not just to cut," the president said. "Even as we find ways to cut spending, what we can't do is cut back on investments like education."

Miami Central Senior High was held up by the president as a model for his education reform policy. It was rated a failing school under the criteria of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization this year, and was nearly shuttered.

With help from a $785,000 federal grant, a new principal was brought in, students moved into a new facility and half of the faculty was sent elsewhere. Now, the school is showing gains in math and reading. The school is safer and the graduation rate has almost doubled.

Obama's 2012 budget calls for an 11% increase for the Department of Education. Over the next month, the president will be traveling the country to talk up education investment. On Tuesday, he'll speak in Boston.

"I am not willing to give up on any child in America. I am not willing to give up any school in America," he told the crowd.

The president did not refer to the controversy in Wisconsin, where that state's Republican governor, Scott Walker, is locked in a battle with teachers unions over collective-bargaining rights. But he did note that "replacing some teachers" was a key in turning Miami Central around. He said those teachers were removed with the support of the local unions.

He also joked about Bush's presence, while sidestepping any controversy about the former governor's decision to appear with him.

"Jeb is best known as the brother of Marvin Bush," Obama joked. "Apparently, the rest of his family did some work in Washington back in the day."

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who also attended the Miami event, said the decision to appear with Bush is an example of Obama's bipartisan approach to education policy.

"We have gone from first in the world to ninth" in graduates, Duncan said in an interview before the event. "We all have to work together. Working across the aisle regardless of politics is important."

At his arrival in South Florida from Washington, Obama was met on the tarmac at Miami International Airport by Florida's new Republican governor, Rick Scott, one of his most vocal critics. Scott is championing a bill in the Florida legislature that would take the state's educational overhaul efforts further and make at least half a teacher's salary dependent on performance on standardized tests. Such a bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican who later became an independent, last year.

Scott also has battled the president on the national healthcare overhaul and on high-speed rail funding.

The president's day in Miami wasn't all an exercise in strained bipartisanship, however. After the Miami Central event, he was to attend a fundraiser at a Miami Beach resort hotel for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, as well as a fundraiser at a private residence for South Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

Oliphant reported from Miami and Parsons reported from Washington.

james.oliphant@latimes.com

cparsons@tribune.com

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