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  1. Education

Jeb Bush has the legacy, but Sen. John Legg is Florida's current go-to leader on education

Andy Ford said Legg is linked to Jeb Bush on many issues.
Published Sep. 12, 2015

As one of Stephen Colbert's first Late Show guests this week, presidential candidate Jeb Bush invoked the now-familiar story of how he reformed education in Florida.

"The government plays a useful role, but it ought to be reformed," Bush told his host. "That's why when I was governor of the state of Florida, I turned the system upside-down. I disrupted the old order, particularly with schools. In Florida, we went from the very bottom to have the greatest learning gains of any state."

The Florida model, as it's known across the nation, has always been identified as Bush's signature accomplishment. But lost in that narrative is the fact that Bush's model has been overhauled since he left office, and arguably no one has had a larger role in that process than state Sen. John Legg.

"When it comes to education in the Florida Legislature, John Legg is the designated hitter," said Sen. Don Gaetz, who as Senate president named Legg Education Committee chairman three years ago.

Legg's influence has extended well beyond testing, his primary issue this past spring, and longer than his Senate tenure. From the late 1990s, when he helped write Florida's A-Plus accountability plan as a House aide, to the latest testing bill, the Pasco County Republican has held sway over much of the state's most far-reaching education legislation.

It was Legg who spent five years creating a coalition to replace Bush's high school FCAT tests with end-of-course exams. Legg was Florida's first lawmaker to push the idea of closer ties between teacher evaluations and student test results.

He rewrote Bush's school grading system, pushed through tougher graduation requirements and sought to expand school choice across district boundaries — an effort that failed only because the 2015 session ended in disarray.

Legg wielded control in other ways, as well. He killed ideas he did not view as appropriate, such as attempts to allow guns in schools. He even has played the occasional naysayer on charter school legislation, though he operates a charter himself.

And when he has seen the tide flow against him, such as proposed expansions of voucher-type programs without testing requirements attached, he has stood back. Legg backs school choice, but wants more transparency where state money is involved.

On Thursday, he steps to the forefront again, leading the charge as the Legislature works in committee to avoid a repeat of last spring's testing problems.

Legg suggested he's been in the right place at the right time to hold sway over one of Florida's most cared about issues.

"We are in a key position, and we do put our ideas forward," he said. "But it really is a recognition of what is happening in our culture and trying to assist educators in meeting that."

Observers note that Legg often molds legislation without putting his name to it, seeking passage rather than credit. He's not big on press releases or interviews, though he rarely refuses them, and he spends most of his time working through details that give his efforts traction.

"He's one of the best I've dealt with in terms of seeking others' opinions genuinely," said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and former superintendent who regularly collaborates with Legg. "Our opinions sometimes differ, but he's always inclusive."

Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat and a vocal opponent of many ideas Legg espouses, agrees the chairman listens and often supports proposals that don't interfere with his primary objectives. He cited their joint work on curbing cyberbullying as an example.

But the fact remains, Bullard said, that Legg "makes no qualms about being very supportive" of the Bush education philosophy, refining its focus on strong accountability more than revamping it.

That alignment has caught the attention of groups that oppose the model.

"He's carried the water for the Bush foundation on many issues," said outgoing Florida Education Association president Andy Ford, referring to Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education. "He may believe what he's doing is helping students, but it is very tied to the foundation and what their agenda is."

Ford noted, for instance, that Legg's efforts to curtail testing did little more than curb expansions that had not yet taken effect. Efforts to scale back further, opposed by the foundation, gained no traction.

In hearings on these and related matters, Legg would close off public comments except to allow the foundation's Patricia Levesque time, said Kathleen Oropeza of Fund Education Now. She also noted Legg's closing remarks on the 2015 testing bill as a sign of his true colors.

"Our students have a right to rise," he declared, using the name of Bush's political action committee. "They deserve the right to rise, to have an economic future and economic opportunity."

Legg said he has talked with Bush perhaps five times in the past five years, usually when Bush called to offer thanks or "ask that we hold strong on an issue."

Truth be told, though, Legg acknowledged he needed little convincing. "I agree with what Jeb is saying."

As for Bush, he has often said that the model he launched would need to evolve over time.

Asked if the agenda belonged to the foundation or the senator, Levesque said they agree often, and she praised Legg as hard-working and genuine. "We love working with Sen. Legg."

Rep. Janet Adkins, a Fernandina Beach Republican who chairs the House K-12 subcommittee, said she had a "world of respect" for Legg and acknowledged his key role in setting Florida education policy. At the same time, Adkins said, he does not control it.

"The Tallahassee process is one that is definitely collaborative. It involves a lot of back and forth," Adkins said. Still, "there's no doubt that if you want to pass a bill dealing with education, you have to go to John Legg."

The reason for Legg's pre-eminent role, Gaetz said, is twofold.

First, he's an educator with classroom experience and time in the front office of a charter school. That gives him credibility, Gaetz said.

Second, he said, Legg understands the "sometimes byzantine nature" of the Legislature's rules and procedures, having served as a committee chairman in both chambers, as well as House speaker pro tempore.

He builds coalitions, picks the right time to offer or delete bill language, and ably synthesizes many ideas into an acceptable package. Rarely one to give credit lightly, Gaetz used one of his own key initiatives to make the point.

"I trusted John with my No. 1 legislative priority," he said. "I wanted to have Florida be a leader in career and technical education, but also a bill that could pass. He was able to do that."

Legg is the first to admit he's had as many failures as successes, sometimes within the bills he passed. Efforts to control teacher evaluations, for example, became too prescriptive, hence the loosening up of the model over the past two years.

His goal, he said, is to pave the path for customization of education for all children, so the system works for everyone. He said he's open to compromise and conversation, even with critics.

"If they're rational and willing to sit down and have a conversation, we will," Legg said, adding that he really likes to hear from people inside the schools. "I learn a lot, and I think we get a little bit of support."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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