Pruitt wants state to return to elected education chief

The Senate leader also wants tuition control.

By Jennifer Liberto and Shannon Colavecchio Van-Sickler, Times Staff Writers
Published February 20, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - A decade after Florida voters did away with an elected education commissioner, Senate President Ken Pruitt wants voters once again to pick the state's top educator.

And he wants voters to designate the Legislature to control tuition at state universities, a move aimed at settling a legal battle with the Board of Governors.

The Port St. Lucie Republican is proposing a single state constitutional amendment for the November ballot to accomplish both changes.

There's no specific wording available yet, but key senators as well as House leadership said they'll support the ideas.

"I think there needs to be clarity on the governance issue and tuition, and if the Senate president wants the resolution to include an elected commissioner, I would respect him on that," said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, House education chief. He said House Speaker Marco Rubio supported the idea when they chatted on Tuesday.

Three-fifths of both chambers will have to approve the measure for it to be on the ballot. The governor's approval is not required.

In 1998, voters amended the state Constitution to reorganize the state Cabinet effective 2002 and to change the way state education policy is set. The amendment created an appointed Board of Education with seven members and staggered four-year terms. The governor appoints the members, who in turn appoint the commissioner.

T. Willard Fair, chairman of the Florida Board of Education, said that the current system works because the education commissioner doesn't have to worry about voter backlash when taking up controversial measures, like Tuesday's vote in favor of new science standards that embrace evolution.

"You have to make tough decisions: Is this one worth my not getting re-elected, or is this one worth it," Fair said. "When you are free of those considerations, you can focus unselfishly on what you think is best."

Yet opponents say the current setup gives the governor too much power. They also think an education commissioner should be accountable to voters.

"I don't think education should be partisan," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate. "It tends to be partisan when it's chosen by a partisan governor representing one party or the other."

Democrat Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, has pushed for an elected commissioner for several years and last year the Senate passed her measure overwhelmingly. The proposal hadn't gotten much traction in the House until this past week.

While there's bipartisan support for electing an education commissioner, there's less certainty about the proposed amendment's impact on the state university system, given that Senate leaders were short on details.

The Senate's intent was obvious to state university system officials: show the Legislature's muscle. Moreover, the constitutional amendment could provide lawmakers with a victory at the polls should they lose their tuition-setting battle in court.

"With all due respect, I am working under a constitutional amendment voted overwhelmingly, by more than 60 percent of the citizens of this state, and that is what I am trying to do," said Board of Governors chairwoman Carolyn Roberts. "I will await the final outcome of the court case."

Voters created the current Board of Governors in 2002 to oversee Florida's 11 public universities. From the start, the board has been an uncertain political animal, coming after Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature dissolved the longtime university system Board of Regents, following a political disputes over issues like a new FSU medical school.

Over the past six years, the board has tried to both exert its authority and get along with lawmakers who believe they have the sole right to set tuition.

Times Staff Writer Ron Matus contributed to this report.