Away from the partisan fray, legislators can catch their breath, think

TALLAHASSEE — They greet each other warmly and take seats around the conference table.

It is just after 7 p.m. in the Capitol complex, and the House and Senate have spent hours debating the budget. In fact, the House is still going when four senators and three representatives gather Thursday to discuss education bills.

The six Republicans and one Democrat, all leaders on legislative education committees, are meeting like this for the first time this session. Here, far from the partisan posturing, the conversation is candid, sweeping and hopeful.

They begin talking about legislation, but before long, they're reflecting on education in Florida and their role in making policy.

Says Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota: "We give everyone a coffee cup and a T-shirt and nothing changes."

• • •

Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, is the host. His Senate colleagues are Detert, Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Gary Siplin, D-Orlando. From the House, there's John Legg, R-Port Richey, Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Marti Coley, R-Marianna.

Later, Wise and Legg will say it wasn't intentional to have only one Democrat there. Plans just came together quickly.

Legg explains the idea is to talk about bottle-necked legislation, what's a priority and what's not in the session's final weeks.

Class size is waiting on a committee in the Senate. Zero tolerance, too. Gaetz's charter schools bill is ready for a Senate vote, but the House companion is hung up. Legg has a bill on gifted students, along with Wise, but it's a lower priority, he says.

They chatter back and forth and then Wise says, "What about the following year? We ought to begin to talk about the pieces."

Gaetz says he's been frustrated the last few weeks with all the education policy bills out there. The best way to kill a company, he says, is to come in every year and shake it up. But that's just what the Legislature does to education.

"One of the things that aggravates people in education is that we just can't leave them alone," he says.

Coley, a former high school teacher, says she remembers thinking "those people in the ivory tower don't know" what they're doing, and now she's one of those people.

Gaetz talks about self-discipline, working on the key issues and then sticking with them.

"Sit on the process a little bit," he says. "You really don't need 27 new innovations every year."

Flores leaves to pick up her son and return to the House floor. But the conversation continues.

What about the education commissioner, Eric Smith? Isn't he a smart guy who probably has ideas for improving the system?

"I'd like to see the plan come from the commissioner himself," Detert says.

Wise suggests getting together next time with Commissioner Smith, going to him with areas they want to work on and asking what his plans are. Then standing together to announce them.

"I've got three years," Wise says, "and I'm not running for anything. I want to get it squared away for you guys."

Agreement is audible.

• • •

Other ideas come up: prepaid scholarships to low-income kids, virtual Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test testing, a focus on black boys who are "not going any place."

They talk about more pending legislation before the meeting breaks. Detert has a bill without a House companion. Coley has a bill whose Senate companion ran out of time at committee.

But the lasting idea: If they work with the commissioner, they can come up with a cohesive plan to reform education in Florida.

"I want him to be the lead dog," Detert says of Smith, "and then we help beat off lobbyists for him."

They stand up, say goodbye and go their separate ways.

Says Legg: Let's not wait till "Day 45 next time."

A Democrat, Siplin, and six Republicans had a heart-to-heart about education policy in Florida.

Seven for education

Away from the partisan fray, legislators can catch their breath, think 04/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 8:04pm]

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