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Education task force begins job

University system Chancellor Adam Herbert talked Wednesday about the dangers of unbridled ambition in higher education, of how it can lead to expensive duplication and to the domination of big universities over small.

But not once did Herbert tell a state task force pondering a complete redesign of Florida's education system what he thinks it should do about the Board of Regents, a governing body created 35 years ago precisely to deal with those problems.

By March 1, task force members are expected to recommend abolishing the regents. They would be replaced by local boards of trustees at each of the state's 10 public universities.

Herbert, who has stated several times before that some type of statewide coordinating body needs to be retained, didn't advise against that change Wednesday _ at least not directly.

"This isn't the appropriate time," he said, though he suggested his message "spoke for itself."

Herbert's reticence was just another indication of how politically volatile the work of the Education Governance Reorganization Task Force is likely to be, especially in regard to the university system.

The proposed elimination of the regents has left that board sharply divided along political lines. Several of the Democratic members want to fight the move; several of the Republicans want to stay on the sidelines.

The changes also are raising questions about Herbert's plans and the status of his friendship with Gov. Jeb Bush, who backs the education overhaul.

Bush told task force members Wednesday not to worry if their work generates controversy. "Good ideas can be good ideas even with controversy," he said.

The 11 members of the task force seemed little concerned about making waves.

"This isn't about the abolishment of the Board of Regents. It's much broader than that," said John Thrasher, a task force member and outgoing speaker of the Florida House. "This is about a historic opportunity, a chance to create an entirely new way of delivering education in Florida."

It's unclear whether voters had that in mind when they approved a state constitutional amendment two years ago. The measure created an appointed education commissioner, removed the state Board of Education from the Cabinet and set up a new board to be appointed by the governor.

The idea was to give Bush more authority over state education policy. But state lawmakers decided to go much further, approving a bill that eliminates the regents by 2003.

On Wednesday, the task force began the long process of figuring out what should replace them.

Phil Handy, who led the drive to establish term limits several years ago, was selected chairman. He said the task force will hold at least one meeting a month in different cities around the state.

Members were clearly excited about the prospect of designing a new education system from the ground up.

John Winn, the group's executive director, said the final product will be more flexible, especially toward non-traditional ideas such as charter schools and vouchers.

Nothing seemed off-limits Wednesday.

Members talked about blurring the lines between public and private institutions. There was a brief discussion about tinkering with Florida's 2-plus-2 system, which coordinates community college with state universities.

Bush encouraged the group to think "big ideas."

"Big ideas are easy to attack, but don't think you have to compromise them," he said.

He offered one other piece of advice: Deal with the regents issue as quickly as possible.

"There are so many other important things," he said.