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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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One will stand at head of class
WANTED: Education commissioner/miracle worker. Big brain. Big ears. Thick skin. Must be genuine, visionary, grounded. Must attempt to please multiple bosses, charm media and keep 170,000 teachers happy - yet still do what's best for a massive pipeline of struggling kids.
By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 16, 2007
On Tuesday in Tampa, the Florida Board of Education is likely to take its list of seven candidates for state education commissioner and make the short list shorter. Next month, it'll pick a finalist.
For Floridians, the stakes are huge. For the candidates, condolences are in order.
This is not a dream job.
Making kids in Florida smarter and more successful would be tough even if everybody were rowing in the same direction. But in Florida, post-Jeb, it's not even clear which way the commissioner's bosses are headed, or who the bosses are, exactly. And really, how far can the commissioner row anyway if we're talking, again, about budget cuts for schools?
Making change is tough, too, given a public that obviously cares about education, but often seems detached and distracted. Floridians don't know much about their ed commish, and don't seem to want to. When the last one, John Winn, shockingly announced his resignation in January - John Winn, who did more than anyone to build Florida's school accountability system, love it or hate it - the story couldn't crack the daily Top 10 on our Web site, tampabay.com. Readers flocked instead to marriage plans for Bubba the Love Sponge.
Maybe that's to be expected. After electing a high-profile commissioners for decades, Florida moved to an appointed commissioner in 2003, as directed by a constitutional amendment that reshuffled the Cabinet. Officially, the Board of Education hires and fires the commissioner, and can do so at any time. But through board appointments, budget recommendations and veto pens, the governor has a lot of weight to throw around, too.
The commish is not all-powerful. He or she can't snap his or her fingers and make the FCAT disappear, or double teacher salaries. But he or she will probably make at least $255,000 a year (that's what Winn made); help steer policy for preK-12 schools and community colleges; and make decisions affecting 3.4-million students.
And that's just for starters.
The new commish could be a pulpit pounder, an idea generator, a megawonk. He or she could be the one who, as Board of Education Chairman T. Willard Fair envisions, walks into a room full of lawmakers and "commands respect."
He or she could be the deal maker who strikes the grand bargain with teachers on merit pay (paid a lot more, but paid a lot differently). Or the brainstormer who finds a creative way to make teachers and principals partners in innovation, rather than cogs to be turned.
He or she could be all of the above.
Then again, the commish could be just another functionary.
Will he or she take the lead in shaping a new vision for Florida schools, or defer to the Board of Education, the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist? Will he or she stand firm on the unpopular but in-some-ways-effective system installed by former Gov. Jeb Bush? Or will he or she bend it and tweak it and attempt, after the fact, to get buy-in from teachers and parents?
Will the Board of Education, in the firm grasp of Jeb appointees, give the new commish approval to stray from the script? Or will Crist, who evidently played a role in ousting Winn, continue to assert his power behind the scenes (while, in front of the cameras, talking as little about education as possible)?
It goes without saying that a lot hinges on not only who's picked, but how much power they're given.
Sen. Don Gaetz, the Okaloosa County Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, likes to say the Department of Education building rivals the Florida Capitol for dominance of the Tallahassee skyline. He's hoping for a commissioner who's "bigger than the job."
"We ought to have someone," he says, "who can look over the next hill and can start leading us toward an educational system that customizes learning for children in Florida."
That wouldn't be easy anywhere. But it's especially tough in Florida.
Out beyond the sugar sand and dreamy palms, the demographic rip tide is fierce: Florida has 2.6-million students in pre-K-12. Half are on free or reduced lunch. More than half are minorities. More than 200,000 speak English as a second language.
Every day, those percentages grow. And at present, only 60 to 70 percent graduate.
Jeb Bush gave it his best shot, but Floridians aren't convinced his overhaul is working. The challenge for the new commissioner is to keep the parts that work, no matter how groan-inducing or misunderstood they may be, and tinker with or trash the ones that don't.
Is that doable? Right or wrong, parents and teachers are not keen on anything having to do with the FCAT. And right or wrong, a constituency never materialized for an accountability system built on a test.
Several commish candidates say they'll arrange more seats at the table, get more input, listen better. That's the right thing to say. But it's hard to see how any commissioner can truly do what's best for Florida's kids unless he or she goes against the grain of public opinion now and then - and yes, against teachers, too.
Ed policy is "not a popularity contest," said Cheri Yecke, one of the seven candidates still in the hunt - and hardly the only one who ruffled feathers in previous jobs.
-Poverty: 46 percent of students on free or reduced lunch* (12th among states)
-Graduation rate: 60.5 percent in 2003-04, according to most recent estimate by Education Week magazine. The Florida Department of Education says the 2005-06 figure was 71 percent, including students who earned GEDs.
-Per-pupil spending: $7,306 in 2007-08 (ranked 41st among states in 2003, according to U.S. Census Bureau)
-National reading scores**, 4th graders: 65 percent reading at basic level or above (26th among states)
-National reading scores**, 8th graders: 66 percent reading at basic level or above (42nd among states)
-Average teacher pay: $45,296
* based on 2004 data from National Center for Education Statistics (U.S. DOE)
* * based on National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the "nation's report card," with 2005 being the most recent data available
Sources: Florida Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics and National Assessment of Educational Progress