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Education chief leaves a legacy

Education Commissioner Jim Horne, who is resigning, was a catalyst for school reforms: vouchers and FCAT.

Published August 11, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Jim Horne, who helped Gov. Jeb Bush push through a radical transformation of Florida's education system, said Tuesday he is resigning as state education commissioner.

Horne, who commutes three hours to Jacksonville each week, said he wants to spend more time with his wife and four children, including his 15-year-old daughter who has health problems.

"For the last 10 years, I've pursued some goals for the state," Horne said. "I want to focus the next 10 years on winning the Dad of the Year award."

Since being appointed by Bush in 2001, Horne, 45, has run one of the nation's largest education systems - 2.5-million students from prekindergarten to graduate school.

He helped change it from top to bottom.

He was in charge when the state combined its traditional K-12 system with its public universities, a synthesis unlike any in the nation. He helped expand a controversial voucher program that has become the largest in the United States. He was a strong proponent of the FCAT, saying it held schools accountable.

His efforts attracted both praise and criticism.

"During his time as education commissioner, Florida has emerged as a national leader in education reform and accountability, and student achievement has continued its steady rise," Bush said in a statement.

State Sen. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Democrat from Weston who worked with Horne when he was a Republican lawmaker, called Horne a "nice person and good senator" who should have stepped down sooner.

"He chose to selectively uphold the law," she said, referring to chronic problems in the state's voucher programs. "It's pretty clear this was not a person who was best fit to be (commissioner) of education."

Horne called key education leaders Tuesday morning to tell them he was leaving, and sent an e-mail to his staff. His resignation is effective Aug. 31. He makes $232,025 a year.

"I was surprised to get the call today," said Carolyn Roberts, chairwoman of the Board of Governors, which oversees higher education in the state. "But (I was) not surprised at his decision."

The state Board of Education, scheduled to meet Monday, will appoint an interim director. John Winn, the department's chief of staff, is among those being considered.

Phil Handy, the Board of Education chairman, said Horne had done well in a job that put him under a lot of stress and pressure.

"I enjoyed being his partner for the last three years under what has sometimes felt like battleground conditions," he said.

Senate President Jim King, a longtime friend, said Horne discussed stepping down in conversations earlier this year.

"He felt it was time to move on," King said. "He and the governor were often in conflict with each other, but the family issue is most important to him."

Horne implemented the governor's divisive A-Plus plan - the 1999 change that raised the stakes connected to standardized testing for students, teachers and schools.

"Clearly, Jim was a strong supporter of the governor's education policy. He was a loyal soldier," said House Democratic Leader Doug Wiles of St. Augustine. "A lot of folks weren't happy with that."

Reading scores improved under Horne's tenure. More students took Advanced Placements tests. And despite a ban on racial preferences in admissions, Florida's universities maintained their diversity.

But per-student spending in public schools remained virtually unchanged. Tuition at state universities soared. And Horne endured intense criticism over vouchers, especially after some private schools that accepted them were accused of fraud and other wrongdoing.

The accounting errors, chronic turnover and management failures at the department's Office of School Choice led to public tongue-lashings from Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, a fellow Republican.

Horne was initially dismissive of calls for greater accountability. Then Gallagher released the audit.

"I think Commissioner Horne has finally realized what is happening to Florida's children is wrong," said state Sen. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat who has been critical of Bush and Horne. "I think he just can't take it anymore."

Horne, who made his living as an accountant, had no formal education experience when he was appointed by Bush. He was an influential member of the Senate, and led the committee that decided how to spend Florida's education money.

As commissioner, Horne helped establish the Board of Education, the Board of Governors and the individual boards of trustees that oversee the state's 11 public universities.

Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a statewide teacher's union, said public school employees were not consulted about the changes.

"Our frustration pretty much stems from the fact that nowhere along the line did teachers and public schools employees get a seat at the table," he said.

Horne was widely viewed as a rising star in Republican politics when Bush tapped him for the job. Bush considered Horne as a possible running mate in 1998. Horne also considered a run for Congress in 2000.

He said Tuesday he doesn't know what he will do in the future.

Horne, who has four children ranging in age from 10 to 18, said he has been torn by the strain of working at a job that requires him to be in Tallahassee most of the week while his wife and children remained in Orange Park, outside Jacksonville.

The difficulty has escalated in recent months due to health problems suffered by his 15-year-old daughter, who is attending virtual school at home. Horne said he considered moving his family to Tallahassee but they liked their schools and community and wanted to remain.

"I don't want to spend all my time helping the state meet great goals and only have time for my children when they are gone," he said.

Times staff writers Alisa Ulferts and Rebecca Catalanello, and researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds, contributed to this report.


AGE: 45

JOBS: Education commissioner, certified public accountant, former state senator

FAMILY: Wife, three daughters and a son

HOME: Orange Park, a suburb of Jacksonville

SALARY: $232,025

EDUCATION: Accounting degree from Florida State University

[Last modified August 11, 2004, 01:37:21]

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