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LARGO -- The Tampa Bay area is poised to become a statewide leader in education, state Sen. Don Gaetz told a gathering of educators and business leaders at a Wednesday luncheon hosted by the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations.
But if local school districts aren't careful, he told the group that included St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, that opportunity could slip through their fingers.
"The problem with school districts is that they teach what they want to teach," said Gaetz, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "The curriculum we're offering is not based on what the business community needs."
Part of the problem, he said, is that educators haven't focused enough attention on career technical education. Unless school leaders become convinced that career preparation is at least as important as college preparation, Florida's economy and students will suffer, Gaetz said.
And now, with Florida's graduation rate among the worst in the nation, one thing has become painfully clear, Gaetz said: Education is too important to be left solely to the educators.
"In business, we listen to the customer or we go out of business," he said. "In education, we're uncomfortable with that notion. We think we don't need to listen to parents and taxpayers and business leaders because we in education have the answer book."
The first non-educator to be elected superintendent of the Okaloosa County School District, Gaetz pointed to Okaloosa schools as a model of the type of educational reform he said is needed throughout the state. The district was ranked 27th in the state based on test scores when he took over as superintendent in 2000. After introducing a comprehensive system of career technical options identified as high priorities by the business community, the district rose to No. 1.
Gaetz is convinced that the method that worked in Okaloosa -- allowing students to earn national industry certifications and college credit while working toward their high school diplomas -- can work anywhere, if districts are willing to allow business leaders to call some of the shots.
"We're talking about lashing the resources of public education to the needs of the economy so that students have the option to go to college (and) the option of getting a high-wage job," Gaetz said.
The message resonated with Dave Barnes, the Pinellas School District's director of work force education. The opportunity to work toward industry certification while preparing for college should not be an either-or situation for students, Barnes said.
Harry Brown, deputy superintendent for curriculum, said the district already is working along the lines Gaetz outlined but is taking a measured approach.
"We don't want it to happen too quickly," Brown said. "It has to be done carefully without alienating those around us."
But Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, found parts of Gaetz's message troubling.
"I'm thrilled at the idea of embracing career education opportunities," Black said. "But you don't see teachers going to the private sector and saying, 'Here, let us tell you how to run your business.'"
In an interview after the luncheon, Gaetz said he's used to hearing resistance from educators and union representatives. That will have to change, he said, in order to raise student performance to the level parents and business leaders expect.
"They will have to come to an understanding that the parent and the student and the taxpayer are the customer," Gaetz said. "But that's a fight that's worth having."