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A Times Editorial

Sheldon for education

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2000

The job of elected education commissioner will disappear in two years, but those two years could be crucial to the future of Florida's public schools. On Election Day, voters will decide whether the state's last elected education commissioner should be a figurehead for the governor or an aggressive advocate for Florida's school children.

Democrat George Sheldon, a former deputy attorney general for Central Florida who also represented Hillsborough County in the Legislature for eight years, would be an aggressive, independent advocate. Sheldon avoids the simplistic rhetoric common to both sides of the debate over Gov. Jeb Bush's sweeping plan of school testing and vouchers, concentrating instead on pragmatic ideas for improving schools and student performance.

Sheldon favors revising school testing formulas so that they accurately reflect each student's progress over the course of a school year -- and reward teachers and schools accordingly. He advocates universal preschool instruction for all of Florida 4-year-olds, and he wants to expand alternative schools for disruptive students, so that all other students have a safer and more productive learning environment. Sheldon has several other common-sense ideas for improving teacher accountability and parental involvement.

Sheldon's Republican opponent, former state Sen. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, has built a political career on a rickety foundation of sound bites and publicity stunts. There is little in his record to suggest Crist is prepared for the massive job of overseeing Florida's public schools.

To his credit, Crist has been a bit more constructive and substantive in his campaign for education commissioner. He supports higher teacher salaries, and he says he would consider revising some of the most counterproductive elements of the governor's new school grading plan. However, Crist hasn't been able to resist some of his old tactics, harping on superficial and irrelevant issues that divert attention from the many serious ones facing our schools.

Moreover, there is the question of how independent Crist would be. Current education commissioner Tom Gallagher has been little more than a mindless cheerleader for the education agenda of Gov. Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, a former education commissioner. As a result, many of the Bush administration's would-be reforms have been inadequately vetted and poorly administered. The top Republicans who steered Crist into this race expect him to pick up Gallagher's pom-poms without too many questions.

Sheldon, on the other hand, has shown a refreshing independence from the governor's A+

plan -- and from its knee-jerk critics. He offers an education agenda that places pragmatism above politics and puts Florida's children first. The Times strongly recommends George Sheldon for education commissioner.

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