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THE RACE FOR COMMISSIONER OF EDUCATION

Talk with parents, teachers and school superintendents about what should be done with education, and you will hear the same buzzwords _ accountability, flexibility, local autonomy, parental choice. What it all means is that parents, educators and business leaders are fed up with the dismal statistics telling them too many children in Florida's schools aren't learning.

The push is for schools to be managed locally with less government interference in what is taught and how it is taught. Incumbent Education Commissioner Betty Castor, a Democrat supported by the education establishment, and opponent Claude Kirk, a witty man whose political fortunes plummeted after he lost his bid for re-election as governor in 1970, have different ideas for responding to that push.

Kirk expressed an interest in local autonomy during his colorful and contentious term as governor, when he fought court-ordered busing to accomplish school desegregation. In 1970, he seized control of the Manatee County school system to prevent what he called "forced busing" but abandoned the effort after a judge threatened him with a $10,000 daily fine.

The Republican candidate still pushes for local control, but in different ways. He vows to move the Department of Education from Tallahassee to a site closer to the center of the state's population.

Kirk wants to pay church groups to teach illiterate adults to read and wants to use educational television programs _ preferably on MTV _ to emphasize education at home.

He also likes to poke at Castor, a former schoolteacher, county commissioner and state senator, calling her a political insider and big-money politician. By the end of September, Castor's campaign had raised $933,000, compared with Kirk's $15,400.

"He's an interesting fellow" is all Castor will say of Kirk.

Castor agrees that schools and parents should have more autonomy but cautions that court-ordered desegregation limits how much power can be decentralized.

Her support for change further hinges on greater accountability by schools and districts for their performance. Traditional measurements, such as SAT scores and dropout rates, don't catch problems early enough, says Castor, whose department is developing other ways to determine which schools are doing the job.

One measure of performance is how often schools retain children rather than promoting them to higher grade levels, she says. Castor, who supports a new law discouraging schools from retaining pupils in kindergarten through third grade, says Japanese schools do not retain young children, and that country's educational system is considered among the best in the world.

_ CHARLOTTE SUTTON

THE JOB

The commissioner of education oversees the education of all Florida students, from prekindergarten through graduate school. The Department of Education, of which the commissioner is executive director, has five divisions: public schools, vocational education, community colleges, universities and services for the blind. The commissioner is a member of the Cabinet and the Board of Regents. The job will pay $94,040 as of January.

DEMOCRAT

BETTY CASTOR, 49, became the first woman on the Florida Cabinet when she was elected education commissioner in 1986. She was born in New Jersey and came to Florida after receiving a bachelor's degree from Glassboro State College. After earning a master's degree in education from the University of Miami, she taught school in Uganda and in Dade County. She served on the Hillsborough County Commission from 1972 to 1976 and was elected to the state Senate in 1976, 1982 and 1984. She has three children and is married to former House Speaker Sam Bell. ASSETS: Home, life insurance, cars, savings. LIABILITIES: Mortgage, loans. INCOME: Education commissioner's salary.

REPUBLICAN

CLAUDE R. KIRK, 64, in 1967 became Florida's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. His single term as governor was marked by a flamboyant personal style and frequent disagreements with the Cabinet and Legislature. He was defeated when he sought re-election in 1970, and since has lost bids for governor and the U.S. Senate, switching between the Democratic and Republican parties. Kirk was born in San Bernardino, Calif., and moved to Florida after serving in the Marines during World War II and the Korean War. He has a law degree from the University of Alabama. After leaving the governorship, he resumed work at his merchant banking firm, Kirk and Co. He is a consultant and lives in Palm Beach with his wife and two children. His financial disclosure report is unclear, and he has refused to clarify it. ASSETS: Business. LIABILITIES: Various debts. INCOME: Consulting business.

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