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    A Times Editorial

    University politics

    The ballot initiative being led by Sen. Bob Graham should produce a serious debate over the proper oversight of Florida's university system.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 24, 2002

    When Bob Graham expresses grave concerns that our schools and universities are losing ground in terms of funding, achievement, independence and reputation, his views deserve respect. Instead of engaging Graham in a serious discussion of those issues, however, Gov. Jeb Bush and Board of Education Chairman Phil Handy have responded with defensiveness and distortions. If they keep trying to ignore Graham's proposal to reverse some of the structural changes they made to Florida's education system, the tactics may backfire on them in November.

    No living Floridian has done more than Graham to help our state's public schools and universities. During two terms as governor, Graham made public education his highest priority, enlisting the state's business and academic leaders in a crusade to move Florida into the upper quartile of states in educational achievement. He chose Charles Reed, a nationally respected educator with formidable powers of persuasion, to serve as chancellor of the state university system. Reed went on to serve under Republican and Democratic governors, consistently advocating the best interests of our universities and insulating the system from meddlesome Tallahassee lawmakers. As a U.S. senator, Graham has continued to serve as an important ally of Florida's schools and universities, helping to steer vital facilities and federal funds to the state.

    Graham is leading the effort to place an initiative on the November ballot that would establish a 17-member Board of Governors comparable to the former Board of Regents. Bush and Republican legislative leaders dismantled the regents last year and replaced them with local boards of trustees at the 11 state universities. Graham's initiative would keep the local boards in place, while re-establishing a central organization to set systemwide policy. That institutional change wouldn't solve all the universities' problems, but it at least would rebuild a structure to provide the universities with some protection against unnecessary friction, duplication and political interference.

    Graham is hardly the first Floridian to make a compelling case that the state education system, and the economy dependent on it, regressed over the past decade. It is already well established that Florida lost ground compared with other states on virtually every important measure, including per-pupil funding, pupil-teacher ratios, percentage of high school graduates attending college and employment in manufacturing and high-tech jobs. It also is no secret that our public schools and universities have come under escalating political pressure from hostile Tallahassee lawmakers.

    However, Graham is uniquely qualified to prescribe the structural changes needed to reverse those negative trends. Unlike virtually everyone currently serving in Tallahassee, Graham remembers firsthand what life was like under a politicized education structure comparable to the one now being rebuilt. In the 1960s as now, political and business leaders feared that the weakness of the education system was impairing Florida's ability to compete for businesses requiring skilled workers. Those concerns, along with embarrassment over the abuses of the Johns Committee's investigations into professors' private lives, led to the creation of the Board of Regents. Not even Graham would claim that the regents did a perfect job of ensuring the academic quality and independence of the university system, but the regents' demise last year did more damage to the system's national reputation than any other political action in the past 40 years.

    Handy accuses Graham of "politicizing" this year's education debate. Even Handy must realize how hypocritical that sounds. The drive to dismantle the regents was politically motivated from the start, and Handy, whose job title should make him the state's chief advocate for public education, has become the chief mouthpiece for an ideological assault on our public schools and universities. What you haven't heard from Handy is a substantive rebuttal of the hard facts and statistical analyses Graham has provided in support of his initiative to reverse the worst elements of last year's reorganization.

    Bush and Handy also persist in two other misleading lines of argument.

    First, Bush purports that "every university president believes the new system we're moving toward is vastly superior to the one we had." Handy makes the same claim, accusing Graham of "a sense of arrogance that he knows better than they all do." Yet Bush and Handy know that's a distortion. The presidents were ignored last year as the reorganization plan was devised in secret. Then Handy and other powerful advocates of the plan began exerting pressure on the presidents to support it publicly, regardless of their private concerns. Those who know Graham and Handy can judge for themselves who has behaved arrogantly in the process.

    Second, Bush and Handy have argued that voters' approval of a constitutional amendment in 1998 mandated the elimination of the regents and the other extreme governance changes they have put in place. In fact, that amendment's language had nothing to say about the regents or any other aspect of the university system. At the time, the amendment was widely interpreted to pertain only to K-12 education, eliminating the office of an elected state education commissioner and creating a reconstituted Board of Education to oversee public schools. Instead, those intent on destroying the old education structure -- and creating an opportunity to make more than 100 political appointments to new education boards in the process -- used the amendment as a pretext for their broader aims.

    The initiative being led by Graham will give Florida voters a more straightforward opportunity to register their opinion on the appropriate oversight of the state's education system. Graham and supporters of his proposed amendment face an uphill fight. They have collected more than half of the almost 500,000 voter signatures they need to put their amendment on the ballot, and polls show most voters favor their proposal. However, Graham himself won't be on the ballot, and Bush, Handy and the Republican-dominated Legislature will enjoy huge institutional advantages as the education debate progresses toward November.

    One potential problem for Bush and Handy is that even many Republican lawmakers are beginning to go public with qualms about their education priorities. The Republican-led Senate Education Committee twice has failed to confirm the governor's appointment of Handy as Board of Education chairman. Handy will eventually be confirmed, but the Senate's intentional slap makes it more difficult for Bush and Handy to claim that all of the criticism of their education agenda comes from partisan opponents and sore losers.

    Graham's concerns deserve a more serious response than that. For that matter, so do those of Republican advocates for education such as state Sens. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg, and Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. If Graham's constitutional initiative makes it on the November ballot, most Florida voters will take it seriously. By forcing a real debate over the appropriate oversight of our education system, Graham will have performed one more service on behalf of Florida's public schools and universities.

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