Veteran state Sen. Don Gaetz is a former school board member and district superintendent from Okaloosa County, where he gained widespread recognition for elevating the profile of career technical education. He brings a passion for that subject to his new role as Senate president. In an hourlong interview with the Tampa Bay Times, he outlined how he and fellow lawmakers hope to change Florida's education system during the 2013 legislative session.
On pushing Florida colleges and universities toward offering more online courses:
"We met with the state university presidents (recently) and it's becoming more and more obvious that there just aren't enough dollars to build all the buildings and buy all of the conventional instructional infrastructure that colleges and universities traditionally use. And so I guess the funding squeeze creates an opportunity for creative solution, and the creative solution in part is online instruction. … Online instruction is not for everybody and it doesn't lend itself to every course. But it is an effective tool that we need to not only exploit but we need to explode its potential in Florida. It seems to me that we have to get over this idea that a student at the University of South Florida or the University of West Florida has to find on the campus the course work that they want or need."
On a proposal to distribute an annual Economic Security Report to students as young as middle school:
"All we're suggesting here is that, as parents and students think about the future, that they have facts. And we think that by providing that Economic Security Report, an education revolution will start at the kitchen table — not in the Legislature, not at the school board, not in the university president's office. At the kitchen table, when parents and students say, 'Here are our choices, here are the facts. Now we know what to expect of our local schools. Now we know what to demand of those we pay our taxes to, and now we know what to demand of ourselves.' "
On the criticism that his plans to push Florida colleges and universities toward offering more computer and technical courses sap the traditional college experience:
"So I would say to the people who have that objection, you're absolutely right. We think that you and your kids ought to have that experience and you ought to have it in spades. But at the end of the day, if you want the citizens of Florida to reach in their pockets and pay half of the cost of your child going to a Florida college and university, then perhaps you and your child ought to think about how your child might be a contributing citizen in the economy. … We're not saying don't go and join the fraternity and hang out on the campus and take philosophy courses. We're saying, while you're at it, prepare to be a contributing member of society."
On Florida's university presidents wanting to replenish their reserves while reformers in the Legislature want to use more money to improve access to the schools:
"I think that will be a lively debate in the Legislature. University presidents want the money back with no strings. They want to put it back in the bank. … But I think the burden of proof is very heavy for those who say what we really need to do is just pour money into the current higher education system and have faith that it'll all work out. Because it's not, because we have so many graduates unable to turn their degrees into jobs and consequently they can't pay down their student loans and those chickens are going to come home to roost on the taxpayers of Florida."
On widely expanding the use of "industry certifications" in high school and college for students more geared to career and technical education:
"This gives us really an opportunity to reach the majority of students. It's not the minority, it's the majority of students who are not going to complete a four-year university degree. … And by providing this pathway — the career, technical education pathway — it's a choice, it's an option. … When they're earning industry certifications, they're earning college credits at the same time. That's pretty neat for a high school kid."
On Gov. Rick Scott's proposal to award every classroom teacher in Florida a $2,500 raise this year:
"I think it's unlikely. I'm a Jeb Bush acolyte. And I can't renounce my baptism and give the worst teacher in Florida and the best teacher in Florida the same recognition and the same reward. … There are differences between the teachers who come early, who stay late, who take on the tough challenges, who work with struggling students and get learning gains and those who are on their way out the door because they've stayed too long at the fair. There is a difference. And I can't bring myself to vote to treat the best and worst teacher the same way with public dollars. … But I look forward to working with the governor to try to adapt his support for our teachers to common sense."