Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss?
Critics of former Gov. Jeb Bush's school accountability system have been hoping that new Gov. Charlie Crist and new legislative leaders might shift direction. But on Wednesday, they got a mixed message, this time from the Senate education committee. In successive votes on three separate bills, the committee unanimously supported a return to an elected state education commissioner, unanimously offered to give high-performing school districts a breather from state regulations and, by the slimmest of margins, shot down a bill that would scrap Bush's school-grading system.
The upshot? Republicans "still have to hold on to the Jeb Bush legacy," said state Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami. Then again, committee Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, did put Wilson's school grades bill on the agenda, something that did not happen under past chairmen. Conceded Wilson: "That's progress."
All three votes offer fodder for debate about school policy, post-Jeb.
Democratic support for an elected ed commissioner reflects deep frustration with Bush policies, which survive despite a lack of public support, and with current Commissioner John Winn, who Bush hand picked. The 1998 amendment to appoint the commissioner was designed to insulate ed policy from shifting political winds, but even Republicans supported Wednesday's bill to put the issue back to voters.
The flexibility bill, meanwhile, may also reflect a philosophical turn. It would allow districts that earn A grades from the state two years running to win a three-year exemption from state mandates on everything from reading programs to textbook selection. The districts would probably appreciate, "the boot of government (being) lifted off their throats," said Gaetz, its sponsor and a former Okaloosa County superintendent. And who knows? Maybe some districts will perform better without DOE holding their hands.
- Ron Matus, state education reporter