A plan to overhaul Florida's education system is now on the fast track in the Legislature, and a political fight is brewing over the future of public schools and universities.
Lawmakers left town last year with a plan to set up a new education board to oversee kindergarten through graduate school, and eliminate the Board of Regents, which has traditionally overseen public universities, in January 2003. Boards would be set up to oversee each of Florida's 10 universities.
Those changes now would be made beginning July 1, under legislation filed Monday by key House Republicans involved in education and school finance issues. That date was recommended by an education task force appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush and Republican legislative leaders.
Democrats oppose the move.
"I feel it's wrong to rush into this radical change. It's something that should be well thought out," said Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami. Meek and some other Democrats say Republicans are moving ahead in part to take away steam from U.S. Sen. Bob Graham's efforts to restore the Board of Regents through a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November 2002.
The reasoning is that if the regents are abolished well before the measure is on the ballot, voters will be less likely to approve the amendment. A spokeswoman for Graham said he is still seriously pursuing the ballot initiative.
John L. Winn, executive director of the education task force, said Graham's efforts had nothing to do with the July 1 date. He said that last December and this January he had been considering putting the education overhaul in place in January 2002 to allow for more transition time from the old to the new education systems. He ultimately agreed to the task force's recommendation of July 1 because "every university president was pushing me against the wall to get this done."
The university system has been in upheaval since Bush and legislative leaders pushed through the overhaul last year. The university system chancellor resigned, and the Board of Regents has lost more than 50 employees from its 144-person staff.
Under the House legislation filed Monday, the Board of Regents and state Board of Community Colleges would be abolished July 1. A new, seven-member Florida Board of Education would be appointed by the governor. The governor also would appoint university boards of trustees composed of 11 members, beginning July 1 and no later than Nov. 1.
The House legislation mandates that each student body president serve as a non-voting member of the university boards, but there is no similar provision for faculty, who have requested representation. There are no qualifications listed for the trustees. They will have power to hire and fire presidents and create and eliminate academic programs up to and including the master's level. The boards would be able to set tuition and fees, with guidance from the Legislature, beginning July 1, 2002.
The new setup will enhance the powers of newly elected Republican Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, who will become secretary of the new Board of Education and serve as chief executive officer of an education system overseeing kindergarten through graduate school.
The new, high-profile role for Crist irks Democrats as well, because Crist is expected to run for attorney general in 2002.
"He will be the most powerful education person in the country," said state Sen. Daryl Jones, D-Miami, who is critical of the education reorganization plan.
"There are a number of reasons to do this, and most of them are political," Jones said.