'The napkin': When Bush, Thrasher huddled, big change followed

Published Aug. 29, 2013

As Gov. Rick Scott dines in private in Miami to discuss education with former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, it's worth recalling what happened before when Bush and Thrasher met. It may explain why Scott's meeting with the two men haas the potential to cause headaches for the current governor.

The year was 1999, the place was a restaurant in Orlando. It was the dawn of dramatic change in Florida's higher education governing system as well as the end of an elected statewide education commissioner and creation of an appointed Board of Education -- changes still in effect today.

Here's an excerpt from the story, first reported by Gary Fineout, then of the New York Times Regional Newspapers:

It all began on a paper napkin.

It was there some 18 months ago that Gov. Jeb Bush and House Speaker John Thrasher first mapped out a radical idea -- a complete overhaul of the state education system and an elimination of the Board of Regents.

Having dinner at an Orlando restaurant in the fall of 1999, the two men began talking about a constitutional amendment passed a year earlier that changed the education commissioner to an appointed post and called for a new appointed board of education.

Their thoughts needed to be put down on paper -- so a napkin was used. On it would be a roadmap for a new system. At the napkin top was a new superboard that would control everything from kindergarten to graduate school.

The ink lines on the napkin connected the board to a commissioner and eventually to local boards of trustees for each state university instead of today's system where all universities are governed by the Board of Regents.

"We had a general discussion given the constitutional amendment, how could we do it?" said Thrasher. "We both sketched out a few ideals, how it would work conceptually. I think we both arrived at the same conclusion." But this dinner conversation over a seemingly arcane subject would have lasting reverberations. It would throw the university system in turmoil, rendering it nearly impossible to hire a new president for the University of Florida.

It would also lead State University System Chancellor Adam Herbert -- one of the most prominent blacks in American higher education -- to resign from his post. And it has led one of the state's prominent Democrats -- U.S. Sen. Bob Graham -- to launch a political campaign to save the regents by constitutional amendment during the 2002 elections.

Those who oppose elimination of regents say it will destroy a university system that had begun to emerge nationally and replace it with a patchwork of individual schools using their political clout at the expense of other schools.

Its supporters contend the new system will finally end the inertia that has prevented Florida from dealing with its higher education shortcomings, including the failure of the current blend of community colleges and universities to shepherd students to graduation.

State lawmakers will be forced to confront the issue again this year since a task force has recommended that the regents be eliminated this summer, instead of waiting until 2003 as required by the law that passed last year.