Educators get foot in door at state Capitol

Many say they're amazed with the new tone in Tallahassee.

Published January 31, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - To an outsider, last week's proceedings probably didn't look unusual.

The Senate education committee was considering legislation that might help Florida better recruit and retain teachers. And lined up in front of the committee to offer their 2 cents was - who else? - a handful of teachers.

But Sen. Larcenia Bullard found the situation so odd she thanked the committee chair for making it happen.

"This is probably the first time I've seen so many teachers and administrators come and speak before us," Bullard, a Miami Democrat, told Sen. Don Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican.

In the seat of Florida power, these are strange days for education policy.

Or, depending on your point of view, maybe the strange days have come to an end.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and political observers say a new tone - more cordial, more cooperative, maybe even bipartisan - has emerged in the days following the inauguration of Gov. Charlie Crist and preceding the first legislative session in nine years that won't be dominated by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The new tone was front and center during the special session on insurance, where Crist, a Republican, set general goals and then let lawmakers, including Democrats, share a leading role. But it also has found its way into debates over education.

Though Republicans remain firmly in charge of education committees, it appears from early meetings that Democratic lawmakers will shape and shepherd major legislation, including a teacher-incentive package in the Senate.

"I was just at a committee meeting and the chair said, 'If you have some good ideas and want to file some bills ... " said Rep. Shelley Vana, D-Lantana, a member of the K-12 committee. "I never heard that in my life, in four years here."

Meanwhile, stakeholders who complained of being frozen out during the Bush era - school boards, superintendents, the teachers union, among others - are being asked for input.

"Some say, 'My goodness, you all are fluffing this too much, you all are looking through rose-colored glasses,' " said Bullard, a former teacher first elected in 2002. But new legislative leadership has "sent a clear message that they're going to come together and work more on issues than party lines."

Bush, allies are gone

For eight years, Bush, a policy wonk with attitude, set the state's education agenda. He pushed through a school grading system, private school vouchers and performance pay for teachers. He showed little tolerance for opposition, as evidenced by his successful drive to abolish the state Board of Regents, which for decades had operated as an independent voice on higher education.

Now Bush is gone. And so are key allies.

Phil Handy, a Bush confidante made chairman of the Board of Education, had his appointment for a second term recalled by Crist. And Education Commissioner John Winn, who Bush picked to run the Department of Education, is retiring Feb. 28, six days before the start of the legislative session.

In education circles, the collective changes have some people giddy.

Vana said Winn's announcement made her want to skip through the Capitol. A teachers union official said after a Senate hearing he almost had to pinch himself.

The hearing featured a panel of superintendents who blasted the state's new performance-pay plan for teachers - which Bush supported - and was punctuated when Gaetz, a former superintendent, criticized a high-ranking Department of Education official who said the plan would attract teachers to Florida.

Unlike recent years, people are "not afraid to express their opinion," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "And if they disagree, they're not afraid of being punished."

Crist gets credit

Blanton credited legislative leaders for the change. Marshall Ogletree, lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, the state's teachers union, credited Crist.

"Our president has had a number of conversations with Gov. Crist" since the election, Ogletree said. Crist "didn't have to do that ... He could have said, "You didn't support my campaign.' "

Not everyone is convinced things are that different.

Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, said House leaders decided this year to put members on fewer committees, so they can digest more information. Last week, for example, a new education panel, the Committee on 21st Century Competitiveness, discussed teacher performance pay for seven hours and took input from teachers, district officials and union leaders.

"The tone that's been changed is we want members to dig much deeper into issues," said Traviesa, vice chair of the House Schools & Learning Council and a member of the competitiveness committee. "But it's not a change in attitude."

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.