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    Education run stirs little excitement

    The presidential race and the ephemeral nature of the commissioner job make the campaign a bit unappealing.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2000

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Charlie Crist followed principal Dennis Griffin along the walkway at Bay Point Middle School, zigzagging around the hundreds of students rushing off to homeroom. Suddenly, out of the crowd an eighth-grader pointed at Crist and exclaimed, "Hey, I know who you are!"

    Crist stopped and flashed his perfect smile at the teen.

    "Really?" Crist said, more as an appreciation than a question.

    Indeed, 13-year-old Roland Covell recognized Crist -- with his signature white hair and gleaming-white smile -- from his television ads and billboards. He even knew Crist was running for state education commissioner.

    Crist later lamented, "If only he could vote."

    In this year's race for education commissioner, Republican Crist and Democrat George Sheldon can only hope to draw attention like that from voters. Right now the race is quite tight, with Crist leading, Sheldon right behind, and "undecided" a close third. From 25 percent to 30 percent of potential voters cannot say whom they would vote for in this race, according to recent polls.

    That means, of course, that with just two weeks to go the race is up for grabs.

    It also means that, in an election year when every candidate seems to have an education agenda, oddly enough, voters are barely paying attention to the race to oversee Florida's public schools.

    "They are suffering from the same thing the rest of the races suffer from," said Jim Kane, editor of the non-partisan Florida Voter Poll. "They're being drowned out by the presidential race."

    Add to that the fact that Crist and Sheldon (and Vassilia Gazetas, who is running with no party affiliation) are running for an abbreviated term for a job that will cease to exist as an elected post in two years.

    What you get is an electorate full of people like Clifford Scholefield of Gainesville.

    "I'm clueless on that one," said Scholefield, a Republican retiree. "Isn't it like dog catcher? Does it really matter? I'll probably look into it at the last minute and then decide."

    Both Crist and Sheldon are planning media blitzes in the coming days to help Scholefield decide. They will pop up in television ads and hold news conferences to lay out their education proposals and underscore their differences.

    They would be thrilled if voters knew which candidate supports the governor's accountability plan (Crist), and which devised an alternative system for judging schools and students (Sheldon). But at this late hour, they would be happy if the voters would just remember their names.

    Crist is far ahead in the race for funds

    In his first election for the Florida House back in 1974, George Sheldon figures he spent 90 percent of his time going door to door, talking with voters. He spent little time fundraising, and his coffers barely topped $18,000.

    That won't work this time around. Sheldon's latest campaign report shows that he has raised about $400,000. He will need more. Crist, who entered the race six months before Sheldon, reported nearly $1.5-million.

    Sheldon says that given Crist's fundraising advantage, the tight race bodes well for him. He thinks Crist has squandered a lot of money by running ads too soon. Sheldon is counting on his own targeted media blitz in the last days of the campaign to make a difference.

    After an 18-year hiatus from politics, Sheldon, 53, knows a statewide campaign needs cash to survive, but he still is trying to spend as much time as possible talking with parents, teachers and principals.

    "I believe a campaign shouldn't just be about trying to convince voters to vote for you," Sheldon said. "It ought to be about absorbing information, talking to people, learning about the job."

    Sheldon has done plenty of that.

    On a Sunday afternoon several weeks ago, Sheldon met in Tampa with Bill Katzenmeyer, ex-dean of the University of South Florida College of Education. They talked about the state's testing system.

    Sheldon met with the principal of the Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy in Pensacola, one of the state's two "voucher" schools last year. He wanted to know what she was doing to raise achievement and to shed the state's "failing school" label.

    He spoke with Jimmie Dugger, principal at Crawfordville Elementary, whose school barely missed out on an A grade. "He wanted to know how we were affected, and I appreciate that," said Dugger, whose school got a C grade this year. If one student had performed a little better at math, Crawfordville would have got an A and collected an additional $65,000 in state money.

    "I'm sensing a real frustration out there," Sheldon said. "You expect teachers to be upset by all the testing, but when you hear it from parent after parent. . . ."

    Sheldon has crafted proposals based on what he has heard from parents and educators. Last week, he offered a detailed alternative to the state's current testing and accountability system. He would test students at the beginning of the school year, and again at the end, and judge schools and teachers on progress, not on a once-a-year snapshot.

    "I'm trying to run a substantive campaign," Sheldon said. "I don't think we should just be critical. We have to offer alternatives."

    Sheldon's approach has won him some surprising supporters. Yes, he has the support of the teachers unions, and fellow Democrat Sen. Bob Graham agreed to do a fundraiser for him.

    But Sheldon also got fundraising help last week from longtime state Sen. Dempsey Barron, a conservative Panhandle Republican. He also has support from Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy's restaurant chain. Sheldon got to know Thomas in his work with the Attorney General's Office.

    Crist aligns himself with Gov. Jeb Bush

    Crist sat in a tiny plastic blue chair and tapped on an I-Mac keyboard. Joking around with a class of kindergarteners at Mittye P. Locke Elementary in Pasco County, Crist seemed fascinated by the kids' computer reading program.

    "The governor is the e-governor," Crist said. "I'd like to be the e-commissioner."

    Crist, 44, aligns himself with Gov. Jeb Bush a lot these days. That seems a good strategy. Despite all the controversy surrounding Bush's programs, pundits say the public generally views the governor as the driving force in education in the state.

    Crist supports most of Bush's school initiatives and points out that he would work to put even more of the governor's ideas into practice. And he clearly has Bush's political muscle behind him.

    Back in January, Crist entered the education commissioner's race with a bang. He had a snazzy Web site, loads of money and a powerful pair of campaign chairs (Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan and U.S. Sen. Connie Mack) before anyone stepped up to challenge him.

    Despite that impressive start, Crist still is engaged in a tight contest. He agrees with Sheldon that voters are waiting until the last moment to decide. But Crist says he's confident that the months of exposure, the television ads and billboards and the fact that he reflexively introduces himself to virtually everyone he sees, will pay off.

    Like Sheldon, Crist did not make a name for himself on education issues while in the Legislature. (Perhaps he is most known for the nickname Chain Gang Charlie for a proposal to have prisoners pick up trash on roadsides.)

    Butattend one of Charlie Crist's campaign appearances or a spontaneous speech to a small group of students, and you will hear about his ties to public education. He attended St. Petersburg public schools. His sisters are educators. His grandfather was a Greek immigrant, his father, a doctor who served on the Pinellas School Board.

    Crist has been getting out into schools to hear from educators and to let them know he wants to help them out. Around adults, children, even around 5-year-olds, he is unfailingly polite, intensely interested and always "on message."

    On a visit last week to Pinellas County's Bay Point Middle School, Crist was quiet during an acronym-intensive discussion among administrators, including his sister, the assistant principal. He brightened when the principal mentioned the "personnel problem" -- that is, the teacher shortage. "Absolutely," Crist jumped in. "We need to recruit teachers." He quickly cited some of the details of his Teach Florida Scholarship program, which would help young people through college and into teaching careers.

    Minutes later, in a journalism class, Crist was asked to express his "stance on education." Crist talked about his immigrant grandfather, his father the doctor.

    "You have a great teacher," Crist continued. "Everyone deserves a great teacher. We ought to recruit teachers."

    Proposals and positions


    The Teach Florida initiative would help recruit potential teachers by giving them scholarships for tuition, fees and living expenses if they agree to spend at least four years teaching in a Florida schools.

    The Sharpening the Pencil plan would send independent auditors into school districts to review their spending and recommend cost savings.

    Crist supports Gov. Jeb Bush's testing and accountability system, though he agrees that it is a "work in progress."

    Crist vows to get more money for teachers in the form of bonuses and pay raises.


    He would guarantee universal access to preschool.

    Fulltime parental involvement coordinators would be hired at all schools.

    Parents with children at low-performing schools would be required to sign contracts pledging to become involved in their child's education.

    The state's testing and accountability system -- based on a one-test snapshot of achievement -- would be replaced by a system where student progress is measured with one test early in the school year and one at the end.

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