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John Romano: Time to correct the voters' mistake

Florida's Old and New Capitol can be seen looking west along Apalachee Parkway in Tallahassee in 2014. A bill in the Florida House aims to return power -- and accountability -- on education matters to an elected education commissioner. [SCOTT KEELER    |    Times]

Florida's Old and New Capitol can be seen looking west along Apalachee Parkway in Tallahassee in 2014. A bill in the Florida House aims to return power -- and accountability -- on education matters to an elected education commissioner. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Let's talk about the time Florida voters screwed up.

It was done with the best of intentions, and with the blessing of editorial boards and voter education groups. But it was a blunder, nonetheless.

This was back in 1998 when voters passed a constitutional amendment giving the governor more power by shrinking the size and scope of the state's Cabinet.

It made sense at the time. And much of the idea still has appeal. Instead of Florida being run by a virtual board of directors, the governor is responsible for calling the shots.

Unfortunately, one ramification of that amendment was seriously misunderstood.

The education commissioner went from an elected position in the Cabinet to an appointed job. The theory was that the commissioner would become less of a politician and more of an educator. The reality is the position became more partisan than ever.

Now, instead of answering to voters every four years, the education commissioner serves at the whim of the governor's hand-picked Board of Education.

In other words, this is why education leaders no longer listen to you.

"It's sad. We've really lost a lot of leverage,'' said Betty Castor, who was elected education commissioner for two terms from 1986-1994. "It was supposed to remove politics from the position, but what it did was remove advocacy. It removed public input.

"There's a kind of helplessness for parents about what to do and who to turn to.''

This is why you should pay attention to legislation proposed last week by state Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach. Mayfield wants to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2016 that would, once again, make the education commissioner an elected position that would fall under the umbrella of the Cabinet.

This isn't the first time the idea has come up. Most recently, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, pushed for it unsuccessfully in 2012. The Senate did approve a similar measure in 2008, but it was never even considered by then-House Speaker Marco Rubio.

So why is Tallahassee so reluctant to give voters a say?

Well, it could be because Jeb Bush still wields a lot of power on educational policies, and he doesn't want voters reclaiming a role in the process.

Following the '98 amendment that weakened the Cabinet, Bush stacked the first Board of Education with people who followed his mantra of vouchers, charter schools, high-stakes testing and school grades. Charlie Crist and Rick Scott later endorsed the same reforms by appointing Bush staffers and cheerleaders to the Board of Education.

"Commissioners answer to the Board of Education, and they don't have to answer to voters,'' said Mayfield. "It really has become too political. It's all about political favors and political payback.''

Mayfield said she has heard from far too many parents unhappy about high-stakes testing and Common Core reforms. Based on polling, she said an amendment would have no problem reaching the 60 percent threshold needed to change the Constitution.

Getting it approved by her colleagues in the House will not be nearly as easy.

Kind of odd, don't you think?

Our lawmakers talk obsessively about accountability in schools, and yet they allow the state's education commissioner to be a mere puppet forever dancing on the governor's strings.

John Romano: Time to correct the voters' mistake 11/23/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 24, 2015 3:39pm]
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