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Education rivals offer a study in contrasts

Published Oct. 18, 2005

Twenty years ago, when then-Gov. Claude Kirk saw an education crisis in Manatee County, he fired the School Board and placed himself in charge. He quickly abandoned the effort when a federal judge, unamused by Kirk's attempt at blocking court-ordered desegregation, threatened him with hefty fines.

Now Kirk sees an education crisis in the entire state, and wants once more to take charge.

This time, his opponent is incumbent Education Commissioner Betty Castor, a popular politician widely regarded as virtually unbeatable, despite the state's high dropout rate and serious school financing problems.

Kirk has tried to attach these problems to Castor in the minds of voters, but it appears that the Republican's message hasn't won wide acceptance.

Castor leads Kirk almost 30-to-1 in fund raising, and more than 2-to-1 in the polls _ the biggest point spread in any statewide campaign this year.

Kirk's only formal endorsement so far has come from the Florida Home Builders Association. But that group endorsed him solely for his more relaxed views on growth management, an issue Castor has championed, explained the association's executive director, Richard Gentry.

The education commissioner, who earns $91,301 a year, also is a member of the state Cabinet, and so has an important voice in issues such as the environment and growth management. The commissioner plays a role in every phase of public education, from prekindergarten to graduate school.

What education under a Kirk administration would be like is unclear even to supporters such as Nat Reed, a prominent environmentalist who was an adviser to Kirk when he was governor.

Asked why Kirk should be elected, Reed said:

"The best case we could make would be that (education) would never be the same again."

Big plans and promises

Hardly anyone who was a student, parent or teacher during Kirk's term as governor (1967-71) would doubt that assertion.

During the 1967 legislative session, Kirk vetoed a schools-spending package. That helped send the educational system into such financial chaos that many teachers walked off the job in 1968, closing schools across the state.

"Do you know where Kirk was during that crisis? Disneyland!" recalled Wayne Blanton, a teacher intern in 1968 and now executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

Once the strike was settled, Kirk busied himself by urging defiance of court desegregation orders, despite an otherwise good civil-rights record. He even tried to set himself up as a national "Ralph Nader of Education" for his stance against busing, an effort that continued after he lost his bid for re-election.

Kirk, now 64, was an insurance executive who burst onto the political scene when he became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He had never held public office, but he quickly made a name for himself, although some of those names included "Kirk the Jerk" and "Claudius Maximus."

Since leaving the governor's mansion, Kirk has made unsuccessful bids for public office, sometimes as a Democrat. He is a consultant and lives in Palm Beach.

Last year, he entered the race for governor, but decided to switch to the education commissioner race.

Kirk says he can eliminate illiteracy in two years by uniting "with the religious leaders of Florida in a never-before-seen effort to cleanse away the sins brought on by the betrayals of our current and past leadership at the Department of Education." In other words, he wants to pay churches to teach people to read.

Kirk advocates zero-based budgeting at the Department of Education as "a program for recovery and accountability _ not new taxes."

He favors some rather orthodox Republican ideas, such as education vouchers for people who put their children in private schools, and more unorthodox plans, such as getting rock stars to promote education on television for what he calls the "MTV/Kirk Study Period."

A steady climb

Castor, 49, has taken a more traditional path to political prominence, starting as a Hillsborough County commissioner in 1972, progressing to the state Senate in 1976 and then to the Cabinet in 1986. She was born in New Jersey. She received a master's degree in education in 1968 and taught school in Uganda and Dade County.

As education commissioner, she has scored points with school administrators, teachers and many parents for her insistence that education receive more money.

She supports plans to give parents, teachers and local school boards more power over school budgets. Castor has introduced programs to reach very young children before they have a chance to tune school out, and to improve children's health through school-based programs.

Castor doesn't make sweeping promises as she campaigns. Rather, she pledges steady progress in these major areas: making schools more accountable, restructuring the education system to improve learning, improving programs for students at risk of dropping out, improving teacher pay and training, helping students prepare for the job market and getting parents and the business community more involved in schools.

Castor, the first woman ever elected to the state Cabinet, takes Kirk's jabs in stride. She smiles when reminded of Kirk's allegation that, having raised more than $1-million during her campaign, she is tied to "big money."

"I love it," she said with a smile. "I'm probably the first woman in Florida to ever get that fat-cat status."