Programs would smooth path from school to work

Published April 2, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - The buzzwords driving education policy this legislative session sound more like Wall Street than Reading Rainbow.

Economic development, research commercialization, work force training.

In crafting new programs and curriculum for high schools and colleges, lawmakers are trying to transform the state's economy.

They want to make Florida "the next Silicon Valley," and to succeed they say they'll need young, educated workers with the kind of specialized skills that businesses demand.

"You cannot attract this kind of high-tech business to this state if you don't have highly trained students," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.

To that end, the Senate recently approved a bill requiring all high schools to create career academies that graduate students with industry certification tied to the needs of area businesses.

Republican Sen. Don Gaetz, former school superintendent in Okaloosa County, said the academies will ensure that students graduate with industry certification and even college credits worth thousands of dollars.

"It's not to make education a slave to industry," Gaetz said. "It's to make sure students who graduate can move on to good jobs. It's to establish academically rigorous instruction that is relevant to the local economy."

Tampa Sen. Victor Crist and Tampa Rep. Kevin Ambler want to give income tax credits to businesses that give high school students paid internships.

And Democratic Sen. Jeremy Ring and Republican Rep. Gayle Harrel propose a nonprofit grant program to help universities market and sell their research and inventions, as the University of Florida did so successfully with Gatorade. The Senate wants to spend $50-million next year toward the effort.

Republican Sen. Jim King, a Florida State University graduate, called Ring's proposal "a giant step toward what we've always said we wanted to do: It's a marriage between a true business plan and an academic research plan."

Jacqueline King, director of policy for the American Council on Education no relation to the senator, said Florida is not alone.

States across the country are trying to attract industry by improving the caliber of their workers and by establishing relationships with private corporations.

"Everybody," King said, "wants to be the Silicon Valley."

For example, German automaker BMW donated $10-million to Clemson University and has since played a large role in developing curriculum for an automotive graduate engineering school.

"That generates this discussion of, 'Are we selling our curriculum?' " King said.

Even Florida education leaders who support the legislative proposals concede there must be a careful balance between what is best for students and what is best for Florida's economy.

Emphasize the needs of industry too much, and you run the risk of pigeonholing students and depriving them of a broad, liberal arts-type experience that includes not just science and vocational training but history, civics, literature and the like.

"Capitalism can't work without a sound education system, but it shouldn't define our education system," said Florida Education Association president Andy Ford.

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The push to move Florida from a tourism- and service-based economy toward research and technology began under Gov. Jeb Bush.

With tens of millions in incentive dollars, he helped lure four large California research and biotechnology institutes to the state, including the Scripps Research Institute and SRI International, which is working with the University of South Florida's marine science college.

Also under Bush, the Legislature set aside $20-million to attract top scholars to Florida universities and $30-million to establish university research centers.

Jack Jennings, president of the Center for Education Policy in Washington, said the emphasis on science and technology education is a direct response to corporate America's lament that there aren't enough high school and college graduates with the right training in areas like computer science and other high-tech fields.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates wants Congress to relax U.S. immigration policies to let in more foreign scientists and engineers.

"Businesses are finding we have not been growing our own in the United States," Jennings said.

And the movement isn't limited to college.

The industry-certified career training approved by the Senate and the proposed high school internship program are aimed at students who might not be college-bound.

"We've been ignoring, to a certain extent, most of the students who don't go to college," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "I think over the next few years, you're going to have more emphasis in that area. It's a good idea. It gives us a better-prepared worker."

In Okaloosa, a failing school district before Gaetz took over, students now register among the highest FCAT scores in the state. Gaetz credits the career academies, which engage students otherwise bored with traditional curriculum.

One academy features instructors from nearby Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Andrew Collins enrolled in the construction technology academy and now works as a drafter for an Okaloosa architect. He's barely old enough to vote, yet he already makes more than his mother.

Jennings said such high school career training is partly a reaction against standardized testing like the FCAT, which squeezes out time for not just civics and history and other liberal arts-type courses, but vocational classes as well.

"A number of school districts are saying, 'Kids leave here and they aren't ready for jobs,' " Jennings said.

"That's how career education is being refashioned: to teach reading and math in an applied fashion."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

Some proposals

A look at some of the proposed legislation linking schools and colleges to economic development:

SB 2458/HB 1161: Requires each school district to create a High School to Business Career Enhancement Program in which businesses providing paid internships for students get corporate income tax credits.

SB 1222/HB 1209: Creates the Sure Futures Scholarship Program, linking universities and colleges with private-sector businesses seeking employees with advanced degrees. A corporate sponsor would provide a scholarship for a student, and the student would agree to work for that sponsor for at least four years after graduation.

SB2414/HB 1521: Creates Sure Ventures, a nonprofit grant program that helps universities commercialize their research. Institutions would apply for grants of $50,000 to $250,000, to be used for activities like marketing, the creation of startup companies, luring private investors and developing licensing agreements. The idea is to recreate successes like Gatorade, a profitable and attention-garnering University of Florida invention.