He wants results, not more red tape

Published February 26, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Freshman Sen. Don Gaetz, the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee, raised eyebrows in the state Capitol last month when he publicly blasted a top Department of Education official over Florida's teacher-bonus plan.

Gaetz, after all, is a fan of former Gov. Jeb Bush, a former superintendent from conservative Okaloosa County and a die-hard supporter of school accountability. Under his watch, the 30,000-student Okaloosa district shot from 27th in the state in student performance to No. 1, earning kudos from Bush and DOE.

So how then did Gaetz come to view DOE - Bush's DOE - with enough venom to say: "God forbid, if I ever start talking like, looking like or acting like the Florida Department of Education, somebody needs to take me out to the woods and shoot me in the leg, so that I bleed slowly and die painfully."

Gaetz sat down recently for an interview with St. Petersburg Times staff writer Ron Matus. Here are excerpts:

Give me a critique of the past eight years. What do you think Florida has been doing right?

Well, I'm a fan of Jeb Bush's education accountability initiatives. As a parent, as a school advisory council chairman in my own children's schools, I saw lost opportunities for children ... because there was no scoreboard. It was sort of faith-based performance. You know, we believe this is all going to work out.

Are there things that were left undone, or things that perhaps should have been done better?

I can tell you as a school advisory council member and as a school board member, then as a superintendent, I ground my teeth many times over what I considered to be the unnecessary micromanaging by the Florida Department of Education.

I am obsessed with results. I am a lot more interested in results than I am in process. And as our school district struggled - and I mean Okaloosa - as our school district struggled to pull our nose up, because we were in a position of declining performance, I found many of the process-oriented initiatives of the Department of Education to be somewhat useful.

But as we began to get our footing, I found that there was ... almost without exception, better analysis, better diagnosis, more customized and useful methods of determining what's wrong with learning - or what can be done to help a student - at the local level.

So I was frustrated as a superintendent with micromanaging. I found the department to be obsessed with paperwork. I found the department to be passionate about process. And I really believe that initiative ought to be encouraged. And if you can find a way to do something locally, and if it works, that ought not to just to be allowed, but it ought to be encouraged in every way.

Could it be that intrusiveness was necessary for a time?

Yes. It was. It was. And that's why I said that when we were struggling ... any kind of help was welcome.

I was a new superintendent who had no background in educational leadership whatsoever. I had never run a school system. I had never run a school. I had never run a classroom. I was a business guy hired by the voters to turn around what our community saw as a declining school system ...

But there came a point, probably after a year or two, when I began to feel the deadening hand of government around our throats. When we were setting standards higher than the state, and achieving results that were historic, I admit to being somewhat resentful and confused with the Department of Education's ever-present and ever-obsessive desire to smother us with process requirements.

Are we at the point statewide, then, that we need to decentralize again?

I think we are. I actually have a piece of legislation which would allow high-performing school districts a remarkable degree of regulatory, financial and curricular flexibility. If we really are Republicans - and we really do believe in individual initiative and local control - why don't we practice it a little bit more, particularly in the area of education?

I think we ought to leave in place every aspect of Gov. Bush's accountability architecture. We need every aspect of it in place. I'm going to take down the FCAT when they take down the scoreboards in the football stadiums. We need a scoreboard. And we need a playbook. And I think standards, instead of being softened, standards ought to be raised ...

But I also believe there ought to be a difference between those who resist accountability, those who consistently can't or won't perform, those who don't seem to be able to use the basic tools, and those who seem to do pretty well. There ought to be a distinction drawn in the regulatory sphere.

I don't think everybody in the state ought to be lined up and get the same length of haircut. I think they tried that in the Soviet Union and they wound up having a going-out-of-business sale. I really believe there ought to be a distinction based on performance.

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