Voters might again choose education chief

Published April 14, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - In an unexpected bipartisan move, the Senate voted 27-8 Friday to put before voters a proposed constitutional amendment reinstating the education commissioner as an elected Cabinet position.

Tampa Bay senators, including Republicans Victor Crist and Democrats Charlie Justice and Arthenia Joyner, voted along with bill sponsor Sen. Frederica Wilson, a South Florida Democrat.

"The issue is accountability," Wilson said. "This person should not be a functionary of another elected individual. The education commissioner should be accountable to the people of Florida."

A House companion bill has stalled in committee, making it unclear if the measure will reach the ballot for voters to decide.

The education commissioner used to be elected, but voters in 1998 approved a constitutional amendment changing it into a position appointed by the governor. Gov. Charlie Crist was the last elected education commissioner in Florida, and "he did real well," said Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville.

Sen. Don Gaetz, a freshman Republican and former Panhandle schools superintendent, at one time supported the measure but ended up voting against it because he said it devolved into an attempt to get rid of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

"Sen. Wilson said the predicate of the bill was FCAT, and FCAT was bad, and by putting this on the ballot, we would be able to get rid of FCAT," Gaetz said.

He also said the bill including nothing about the commissioner's required qualifications.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said voters already decided they didn't want an elected commissioner.

"We've had popular people elected before, and that does not necessarily mean they are qualified," he said.

"When you have to wait four years to get rid if a bad education commissioner, I think that's bad business."

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