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Teachers' union supports lawyer

In the race for education commissioner, teachers support George Sheldon, while the governor favors Charlie Crist.

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- A favorite elementary teacher sparked his interest in learning; a high school teacher made him believe he could go to college.

Attorney and former Tampa Bay lawmaker George Sheldon credits his success to teachers. Now he has the endorsement of the state's powerful teachers' union in his campaign to become Florida's education commissioner.

Florida Education Association president Maureen Dinnen said Tuesday that Sheldon, a Democrat, stands out for his willingness to fight for higher teacher salaries and spend more on children with special needs. In addition, she said, he will look beyond politicians to solve the problems of public schools.

As Florida proceeds with education reform, Dinnen said, "the voices of parents, the voices of students, of teachers, are the last to be heard."

As he stood by the education commissioner's office in the Capitol, Sheldon said, "Never again will these doors close when teachers approach them."

The scene sets the stage for a significant philosophical battle over public education reform in Florida.

The Republican candidate, former state Sen. Charlie Crist, of St. Petersburg, is a strong supporter of Gov. Jeb Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan's reform program: annual tests in reading, writing, math and eventually science; a letter grade for each school based on student test scores; and private school tuition vouchers for students who want to escape from "F" schools.

The teacher unions were skeptical of many aspects of the Bush administration's plan.

"Frankly, it would have surprised me if I had received the endorsement of the teachers' union," Crist said Tuesday. "I think they typically like to stay with the status quo."

Crist has strong support of his own: Both Bush and Brogan said Tuesday they are backing Crist, and Brogan will be campaigning with Crist.

The education commissioner elected in November will serve two years. After that, a new state board of education will begin appointing someone to the position because of a change approved by voters in 1998.

But Brogan said the importance of the election should not be ignored.

"I am convinced that the race for education commissioner is one of the most important races in the state of Florida this year," Brogan said. Education reforms approved by the Legislature in 1999 are in the "fragile stage of implementation," he said.

Should Sheldon win and make changes, "I am terrified that the system could not absorb the shock of moving backwards," Brogan said.

Sheldon takes issue with some of the core concepts of the Bush-Brogan plan, such as public schools now being graded based on standards that children must meet on state tests. Sheldon said the state relies too much on tests to judge teachers and schools. He favors an approach that measures a student's progress throughout the year.

"We ought to be preparing students for life," Sheldon said. "Not every child has to be college bound."

Children also can be trained for trades that don't require college, Sheldon said.

Sheldon faces state Rep. James Bush of Miami in the Democratic primary. Crist has no primary opponent. Vassilia Gazetas of Boynton Beach, is running without a party affiliation.

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