Gaetz: Education "too important to be left to educators"
Senate Education Committee chairman Don Gaetz told local education leaders this week that the Bay area is "fertile ground" for the state's career education movement. But he cautioned that parents, community and business leaders should not leave all the decision making to educators. "Insiders are not bad. They’re good, because it’s a complicated world, and you have to be able to navigate that world. But education is too important to be left to educators," he told reporter Donna Winchester. Read on for the full interview.
You implemented a rigorous program for career technical education when you were school superintendent in Okaloosa County, which you say can – and should – be replicated in other districts. Are you satisfied with the efforts districts in the Tampa Bay area are making along these lines?
Let me repeat what I said today publicly. I believe that the conditions are present, that the possibility exists for Pinellas County to be the new model for Florida in career education. The ingredients that I think are present are, first of all, the most dynamic business community support for career education, for changing the way schools are delivering high school education. I see a business community that is poised and ready to reform Pinellas County high schools.
The Tampa Bay area is the economic muscle of Florida. This is the manufacturing center of the state. I think that creates fertile ground for career education. It won’t be your grandad’s vo-tech, or a dumping ground for troublesome students and employees. What’s called for here is career technical education that’s at least as good as the best college prep education. So I’m encouraged, particularly by what I see in business community leadership and business community insistence that our high schools be reformed and that education be more academically rigorous and more career relevant.
How does the 2007 legislation that established a comprehensive reform package aimed at bridging the gap between education and industry play into this?
We have now in the environment all of the advantages of a new law which provides for a three-part joint venture among business, higher education and the school district to create institutes or centers of excellence that are driven not by the education establishment, but by the needs of the economy. And then there is the new law that provides weighted funding for career education if students complete the highest level of national industry certification.
I think the new law will help. I think the additional funding will help. I think moving the Department of Education out of the way so that career education courses can satisfy core course requirements will help. But the heavy lifting will have to be done by business leaders and by activist parents.
I heard you say today that when you asked your “customers” in Okaloosa – parents and students on one hand and business leaders on the other – what they wanted the school district to deliver, they basically told you the same thing.
They wanted the highest standards. We were at a different place in 2001 and 2002 when we began our journey. We were 27th in the state and slipping. In that environment, our business community and our parents and our students said it’s not enough that we do better. It was expected that we would set our standards for career education, and for all education, higher than the highest in the state. I heard that same kind of hunger from parents I talked to toady. I talked to a woman who has two children in high school and one in middle school. She said what resonated with her was the need for a standard that says that schools here aren’t just supposed to get better. Schools here should be the best in Florida.
I think that kind of expectation is the foundation for the kind of career education initiatives we’re talking about. We’re not talking about getting more kids into vo-tech. We’re not talking about just rearranging the furniture in the current system. We’re talking about lashing the resources of public education to the needs of the economy so that students have all the options, the option to go to college (and) the option of getting a high-wage job.
I think it will take some heavy lifting. The state of Florida has taken a major step, I think, with the most advanced career legislation in this country. All of the permission has been given. Now it’s up to local business leaders and activist parents.
And where do educators fit in?
I think the education establishment is one of three partners. But changing high school to really attract and hold students is something more than just educators can do. It takes the business community, and it takes higher education institutions. School districts are a major player. But in the reforms that are now in law, school districts are a partner. They’re not the sole controlling voice of what is taught, or who teaches, or what the credentials are. The vision here is that industry will set the standards. Industry will determine the curriculum, industry will qualify the instructors, industry will do the testing and assessment, and industry will award the credentials. That way, there’s real value added. Educators are partners, they’re very important partners, but they don’t have the answer book.
And were there complaints?
We were very fortunate in Okalossa County to have tremendous private sector leadership and an extraordinary school board and a community that said, “We expect you to be the best in everything you do. We expect you to be the best in Florida, we expect you to be a model in America, and we will accept no excuses.” They said, “We don’t want to hear about mobility rate, we don’t want to hear about race, we don’t want to hear about poverty, we don’t want to hear we’re a medium sized district without the leverage of a big district. Our children to us are the most valuable children in Florida, so we expect the best.” When you have a community that fills you sails with that type of fresh breeze, it’s a tremendous advantage.
What about those who would say Pinellas isn’t like Okaloosa, and that the differences are enough to make your career education model impossible to adopt here?
Okaloosa is different from Pinellas and Pinellas is different from Escambia. But an individual student who might be lost, whose opportunities might never be realized because we don’t excite him, because we don’t grab him and give him something that’s relevant, that’s a child whose location doesn’t matter. He can be in Tarpon Springs or DeFuniak Springs. We have an equal obligation.
The great thing about the Choice institutes and the great thing about this law is that it is adaptable, it sets very high standards and gives tremendous opportunities. I would violently oppose an inflexible template forced down on the brows of the Tampa Bay area or forced down on the brows of the Panhandle. There is the opportunity to create real education driven by the opportunities and needs in the economy. It’s not the Okaloosa model, it’s not the Pinellas model that should be forced on other people. We’re forced to look at the economic opportunities in our own markets and then build education backward according to the needs of our customers.
Tell me more about the career education legislation.
It was passed by the Florida Legislature in 2007. There is a two-year implementation process. This is a year when the three partners in each county in Florida – schools, businesses and institutions of higher learning – should be planning and developing their plan for a career technical institute, at least one. And then next year is roll-out year for those counties that aren’t already proceeding. We have 16 counties already replicating the Choice institutes. Next year we’ll have more.
And how long does it take for the programs to be running smoothly?
From the gleam in the eye to the first graduating class for the Choice institutes in Okaloosa county was four years. Fortunately other people can learn from our false starts and our fumbles and our mistakes, and so I would expect here in the Tampa Bay area, the private and public employers here would be able to cut some lead time.
Which of our local districts would you say is closest to achieving the Okaloosa model?
I think Pinellas is about a lap ahead, but Pasco is beginning to do some serious work. So is Polk County. So is Hillsborough. But I think that thanks to the Pinellas Education Foundation, people like Bob McIntyre and Gus Stavros, they have taken the bit in their teeth and they’re moving fast and they have built the infrastructure of business support that I think will be irresistible.
Yes. Once we get the parents and the kids involved, they’ll take it over. Customers and their needs will become the rocket fuel. It won’t need artificial insemination after the kids get involved.
But what about resistance from educators? I know you had some of that in Okaloosa.
You’ll see that. If career education or high school reform in Tampa Bay high schools is held hostage to control struggles, students will be the victims and the economy will be the poorer. The real struggle for better schools is not fought with parents and students and taxpayers. The real struggle for better schools is fought inside the education establishment. I tried in my kind of fumbling way to articulate that when I talked about who’s the customer. Is the system the customer? Or is the student and the parent and the taxpayer the customer? Progressive teachers unions that want to lead and survive will come to the understanding that the parent and student and taxpayer are the customer. We have to meet their wants and their needs. And that’s a struggle. But that is a fight worth having. That’s the hill to take and die on.
So you see the parents and the students and the business leaders as the customers?
Yes. We politicians and union members and school district employees, we’re servants of the system. We don’t own it. Better schools result when activist parents and business leaders decide to own the school system. In our school district back home, we have former educators who have served, and do serve, on the School Board, and they are among our best board members. They’re terrific. I’ve learned so much from them, particularly from a 36-year veteran of the school system. But we made a decision as a community that the School Board would be dominated not by insiders but by parents and taxpayers and business leaders. Sometimes it takes a couple of election cycles to make that happen. Insiders are not bad. They’re good, because it’s a complicated world, and you have to be able to navigate that world. But education is too important to be left to educators.