Education post needs new face

Published May 24, 2007

Gov. Charlie Crist has a chance to make an appointment that will signal a more cooperative approach to school accountability, and he can thank lawmakers.

The Legislature, not known as a bloodhound when it comes to detecting the scent of political conflict, did the governor a favor this spring by passing on the appointment of Akshay Desai to the state Board of Education. Desai owns Universal Health Care Insurance, a company in financial turmoil and at war with regulators. The situation got so bad this spring that Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty wrote lawmakers to warn that Desai was trying to twist arms to get the law on financial reserves changed. "I am convinced, " McCarty wrote, "that the ramifications of this change could be very harmful to our senior citizens, to our medical providers and to the Medicare program in Florida."

Desai's appointment failed even the Legislature's weak smell test, which gives Crist the chance to find a replacement. He already has used his appointments to various state agencies and boards to put his own stamp on government, including his bipartisan approach and strong advocacy for consumer and environmental issues.

With the education board, Crist has not done nearly so well. The seven-member board sets public school standards, oversees failing schools and charter schools, and chooses the education commissioner. Crist has said he would like to see a less combative approach, but his first selection was to reappoint T. Willard Fair, who recently told a public audience that he doesn't "trust" elected school boards. His second selection, Desai, was as notable for his Republican fundraising prowess as for his educational credentials.

The governor has said repeatedly that he wants to bridge the gap that exists between state education bureaucrats and those who work in the classroom. He has argued, as he did in signing a teacher performance pay plan in March, that accountability doesn't have to produce conflict and that education policy is more likely to succeed when it involves school boards, principals and teachers.

The greatest current obstacle to such a partnership resides in the Turlington Building in Tallahassee. With a new appointment to the state board, Crist can point toward a less confrontational path.