At least 43,000 third-graders and 12,000 high school seniors failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) this past May, triggering an angry protest movement by parents, students, and their supporters demanding that Gov. Jeb Bush suspend the high stakes exam.

The crisis brought home that Florida is once again a testing ground for Bush-led Republican attacks on the democratic rights of the people. FCAT is Florida’s version of a punitive test that will be forced on every public school student in every state under George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” scam.

More than 2,500 parents, students, religious, civil rights and community leaders staged a protest rally outside Gov. Bush’s Miami office May 22. Miami is home to one third of those who failed the FCAT, many of them not fluent in English. Thousands of students stayed away from their classes that day. The protesters traveled in a motorcade of 500 cars to a larger meeting at Florida International University.

State Sen. Frederica Wilson (D-Miami) told the crowd, “I’m hoping that the governor will realize that its hard enough being Black in America today. For children without a diploma, it will be triply hard.”

Bishop Victor T. Curry of the New Birth Baptist Church said the only thing Bush understands is “M-O-N-E-Y.” He urged a boycott of Florida’s $52 billion tourism industry to force Bush to suspend the FCAT. He announced that thousands across Florida have signed petitions demanding suspension of FCAT.

State Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando) convened a news conference in his district July 7 to decry the disaster, charging that the FCAT is biased against African American, Haitian, Latino, and poor children of all races. He too said a boycott is in order if Jeb Bush refuses to suspend FCAT.

Bush has called for a special session of the Florida legislature to enact limits on jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits. “I am asking the governor to expand that special session to include help for the students who failed the FCAT,” Siplin told the World in a telephone interview.

In his district, he said, 12,000 incoming third graders next year will be joined by 13,000 repeaters. “That is 25,000 third graders next year with no extra money provided by the state to hire more teachers or buy more textbooks.”

He charged that Bush’s hidden agenda is privatization of the state’s public schools. “This is the most logical explanation,” Siplin said. “Vouchers are given to children to attend private schools where children are not required to take the FCAT for either advancement or graduation,” he said. “Gov. Bush’s brother, Neil, markets a program to help students prepare to take the FCAT.”

He was referring to a Texas-based software firm, Ignite! Inc., of which Neil Bush is the founder and CEO. The company has raked in $20 million selling software to prepare students to take comprehensive tests required under “No Child Left Behind.” Schools that fail the tests will face termination of federal assistance.

Neil Bush’s firm is running a pilot program at the Ocoee Middle School in Orlando and hopes to sell the software throughout Florida at $30 per pupil per year. Neil Bush is notorious for his role in the Silverado Savings scam that cost depositors $1 billion in the savings and loan scandal back in the mid-1980s.

Siplin pointed out that Gov. Bush could find no money to implement the ballot measure overwhelmingly approved by voters last November mandating a reduction in class size to 18 pupils or for a pay raise for hard-pressed Florida teachers. “But he found the money to pay for prisons to house another 4,000 inmates,” he said.

Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA) said, “We have many concerns about FCAT and standardized testing in general. It encompasses entirely too much of what students, teachers and schools are judged on in one high stakes test.”

NEA is preparing a lawsuit asking the courts to declare that “No Child Left Behind” is an “unfunded mandate” imposed on states contrary to the intent of Congress. NEA General Counsel Robert Chanin cited a study by the non-partisan General Accounting Office that just the testing provisions of the law alone will cost states between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion.

State Sen. Tony Hill (D-Jacksonville), told the World, “We’ve put on a series of town hall meetings across the state. You have to realize how devastating it is when so many thousands of third graders and high school seniors fail the test. Jeb Bush is the king-maker in these attacks on public education.”

Hill, a former union longshoreman and organizer for the Service Employees International Union, said the crisis in public education looms in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections. “They are spending billions in Iraq but they have no funds to educate our children here at home,” he said. “We still have our ‘Arrive with Five’ project, urging every voter to bring five family, friends and neighbors to the polling place on election day 2004. We will mobilize and organize to safeguard against a repeat of the nightmare of 2000.”

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