With his education system under attack, Jeb Bush has begun selling a revolutionary idea: Failure is good.
The Florida governor is piping that message into our homes as part of a massive state-funded advertising campaign called "Read to Learn." The ads are aimed at families struggling under the stigma of a child's flunking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. And that's a lot of families. About 43,000 third-graders across the state, 23 percent of the total, failed the FCAT this past spring, 5,700 of them in Broward and Palm Beach counties. About 25,000 are expected to be held back from fourth grade this year.
Might sound grim, but Bush is answering the critics with the TV campaign. The first commercial, which began airing a couple of weeks ago, is titled: "A Florida Teacher Talks About the Benefits of a Student Repeating a Grade." In it, a pretty sixth-grade teacher named Jennifer Sillman, who works in Hillsborough County, tells of the virtues of failure.
"If we can find and identify the students who cannot read and fully comprehend what they are reading, if we can retain them and allow them the time to catch up, it will benefit them not only for the fourth grade but for all their future years in school."
On a state Department of Education-run Internet site, www.read-to-learn.org, there are testimonials from seven other educators and a couple of parents on the joys of flunking. All are expected to be broadcast in the coming weeks.
"Read to Learn" is a beautiful ploy. By focusing on a few success stories, Bush brushes aside an overwhelming body of research that shows "grade repetition," as the state sometimes calls it, is harmful to most students and greatly increases their chances of dropping out of school before graduation.
Bush knows that a well-placed (dis)information campaign trumps actual facts every time. It's a good slogan too, "Read to Learn," much better than the more obvious: "Leaving 25,000 Children Behind."
And Jeb's big brother, George, the president, is also adept at the art of wonderfully unscrupulous salesmanship, as his buildup to the Iraq war proved. And there are many more ad campaigns to come. I've obtained rough drafts of some (both Karl Rove and Jeb's chief counsel, Rocky Rodriguez, need to learn to lock their cars) and found them to be flat-out brilliant.
First, here's the president's future propaganda plans:
Title: The Benefits of the Bush Tax Cuts
Problem: A lot of folks are peeved that the vast majority of the benefits of the tax cuts are going to the richest people in the country. Some believe it's part of a plan to loot the government for our friends, dismantle the education department, and kill all the social programs. They are right, of course, but they mustn't think that anymore.
Spokesperson: H. Wayne Huizenga.
Script: "The tax cuts not only make me richer but also help my homeless center in Fort Lauderdale. Yes, the numbers of homeless have been rising steadily; we've seen increasing traffic at the Huizenga Family Campus of the Broward County Central Homeless Assistance Center. Watching those silly, sick, smelly bastards hobble up to suck on the government teat makes my eyes water. (It really is just water -- my tears haven't produced salt since I was 7. More efficient that way). The tax cut has also caused a rise in consumer consumption -- and we all know what that means. More garbage, baby. That's where Waste Management comes in. I'm cleaning up, literally. Ha ha.
"Was that a boo from the audience? Did I hear a boo? That was a joke, folks. Lighten up. You know what's relaxing? Buying a used car at Auto Nation for a low, low no-haggle price. Oh, and another thing: The Dolphins are going to win the Super Bowl this year. Finally, I can throw away that 'I Bought the Dolphins and All I Got Was a Lousy World Series Ring' T-shirt. The Super Bowl! Not bad for a half-sociopathic rich kid from Chicago, huh? Now give daddy that big juicy tax cut."
Title: The Benefits of Unemployment
Problem: Under the leadership of President Bush, the country's unemployment rates have hit their highest point in decades. This year alone, more than a half-million jobs have been lost. We need some positive spin on this issue.
Spokesperson: A well-kempt, good-looking fellow on a couch.
Script: "I have just two words for anyone who disses unemployment: daytime television. Think about it -- while you're toiling away at work, I'm hanging out with Regis and Ripa. It's da bomb, as they like to say on Rikki Lake. So maybe I haven't had a paycheck since I was fired five months ago, but at least I'm not knocking up women like them dogs on Maury. Am I right? Woof woof! And you know Doctor Phil cures all my ills, girlfriend! Hey, since we're talking here, can I move in with you? They're threatening to foreclose on my house in Boca. All's I need is a couch, a remote, and some Doritos, yo. I mean, unless NASA hires me back as chief safety engineer -- and, uh, I really doubt that's going to happen -- I'll just chizill at your pizad."
Title: The Benefits of Dying in Iraq
Problem: More than 260 American soldiers have already died during the war, along with thousands of Iraqi civilians and hapless soldiers. All for just a billion dollars a week. There is much speculation as to how long the people of the United States will abide, and we must end that speculation.
Spokesperson: Any well-kempt, handsome soldier in Iraq will do.
Script: "You think it's tough being dead? Try being in my shoes for three days. [Sound of explosion and falling debris] Oh shit, is that somebody's toe? It's a hot summer, man. When we're not sweating and cursing Don Rumsfeld's name, we're getting picked off by bastard Baathists. I don't know much about Iraqi hearts and minds, but I've seen plenty of guts and brains. And have you ever inhaled a cloud of depleted uranium? It's not new age aroma therapy, I can assure you. But there's an upside. If you die over here, you get to skip the syndrome. And like I always remind the guys, who wants a syndrome? [Machine gun fire erupts] And if we die, the government gives our families a one-time $9,000 death benefit -- most of it isn't even taxed. Pret-ty sweet. Plus, since Saddam put a $5,000 bounty on our heads, every time one of us gets popped, it helps stimulate the Iraqi economy. Kind of like a tax refund. We're here for the Iraqis, right? Yeah, Bush loves him some Iraqis. What kind of life was I going to have in America anyway? I'm strictly working class. Even if I used the G.I. Bill for college, the best I'd do is spend my life clawing my way up to middle management. [A huge bomb explodes nearby] Sweet mother of God! No, really, the president is doing us all a big favor over here."
And here are a couple of Jeb's future campaigns:
Title: The Benefits of Medical Malpractice
Problem: To keep doctors happy (and contributing huge dollars to the Republican Party), Jeb has tried to convince people -- and the Florida Senate -- that they should support a measly $250,000 cap, including attorney's fees, for pain and suffering. Last week, Jeb compromised with the Republican-led legislature on a $500,000 cap, but this fight is far from over.
Spokesperson: A well-kempt, articulate man missing a leg.
Script: "I'll admit it: When my doctor accidentally removed my right leg instead of my appendix, I was a little upset. It cost me my job as second-string kicker for the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League. And, even worse, it stole my dream of dancing with the Rockettes at Carnegie Hall. I tried to kick a field goal after the accident, but after more hopping and falling than I care to recount, the farthest the ball would go was three yards. I knew that wasn't enough, even for Arena ball. But hey, I already had another leg, after all. And limbs are way overrated. There are big-time benefits to being unilegged. During the surgery, I lost that 35 pounds I've been trying to shed since college. And get this: When a sock disappears in the laundry, it's only half as vexing as it used to be. So it's great. And I still have faith in our great medical system, though I will take my old football cup to the tonsillectomy I have scheduled for next week."
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Title: The Benefits of Being Lost in the Foster Care System
Problem: Everyone knows that the state Department of Children and Families has had some, um, difficulties in keeping up with Florida's foster children. Rilya Wilson is just the most famous example. We need to change that perception.
Spokesperson: Think a very young Justin Timberlake.
Script: "I was a foster kid before the State of Florida lost me. A lot of people figure this wasn't a good thing, but they are wrong. For one thing, I didn't have to deal with that old guy in my foster home called "Uncle Ray" anymore. I don't want to get into the details, but his idea of fun generally involved a feather boa and a half quart of Crisco. And since they lost me, my drug problem has gotten much better -- I've scored more rock and weed in the past couple of weeks than I did in two years with the state. I haven't been to school in about a year, but I was no good at it anyway. They even held me back in the third grade after I failed the FCAT. But now that I'm away from the pressures of the classroom, I'm starting to read more, especially since the library is air-conditioned and all. So don't ask me to take any of that public education charity. It's time to grow up. I'm almost 11 now, for Chrissakes."