Betty Castor: Return to elected & accessible FL Commissioner of Ed


Betty Castor, one of Florida’s last elected and most beloved commissioners of education speaks out about why this should not be an appointed post. As she wisely notes, returning to an elected Commissioner of Education who serves in the Governor’s cabinet will give voters a real voice regarding Florida education policy.  In her own words:

Two courageous legislators have filed bills that will allow Floridians to regain control of our public education system. HJR 767 and SJR 942 would return Florida’s commissioner of education to an elected position.

Floridians who want change must speak out forcefully in the weeks ahead.

HJR 767 (House Joint Resolution) by Rep Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, and SJR 942 (Senate Joint Resolution) by Senator Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, deserve our support.

It is time to move beyond complaining about excessive testing, dubious teacher bonuses, a lagging graduation rate and continued taxpayer bills for failing charter schools, which seem to be moving toward becoming the new normal. As vexing as these issues are, complaints won’t make it through because the current system is built to stymie access by anyone but insiders.

We can change this scenario by tossing the current closed system in which the governor appoints a Board of Education, the board then appoints the commissioner of education, and most folks outside of Tallahassee are shut out of the process.

Prior to 2002, the elected education commissioner was a member of the Florida Cabinet. When the change was made from elected to appointed, the bulk of the argument was that the shift would remove “politics” from education. In the 14 years since, that surely has not happened. Furthermore, the new system resulted in a revolving door, with four different commissioners of education serving the current governor alone!

This is about accountability — creating a strong, visible and clearly responsible advocate for education. Since the current system has been in place, it has become increasingly difficult for parents, teachers, school boards and superintendents to be heard.

Shouldn’t the commissioner of education be the advocate? One would hope so, but under the current set-up, the commissioner is beholden to the governor and the state board. “Advocacy” must be vetted.

How about our legislators as advocates? Many try. But the legislative calendar is controlled top-down. You have to be a heavy-hitter to get a spot in line. Those who carry the burden daily in classrooms, schools and districts cannot claim their rightful place on an agenda controlled by highly paid lobbyists, including hired guns for testing companies, the growing for-profit charter school industry, and others eager to make a buck off the school funding formulas.

HJR 767 and SJR 942 would return the cabinet to its crucial role as our Florida Board of Education. Under that scenario, the governor served as chair. All members of the cabinet were important in recommending a budget, as well as policy changes to the Legislature. They were approachable — and open to views from parents, teachers, student leaders, school boards, the business community and other advocacy groups.

Everyone knew who was in charge and where to find them.

They are all elected statewide and are known. Currently, the agriculture commissioner and the chief financial officer act as members of the cabinet, the state’s highest governing board. Surely, education is as critical to Florida’s future as agriculture. The chief financial officer would bring to the table an understanding of the actual costs of education and the impact of this precious sector on state resources.

Meetings of the governor and cabinet are public. They receive much more scrutiny than the current board of education, whose members are unknown to most. With the largest part of state spending going to education and the future of our state determined by the quality of our schools, this is an issue that demands discussion, debate and a vote of the people.

It will not be easy.

The resolutions that have been submitted are similar to legislative bills that are assigned to multiple committees. Unlike regular bills, which only require a majority vote, these require a 60 percent vote in each chamber.

If passed by the Legislature, the new amendment goes directly to the ballot, where it also must receive 60 percent of the vote to pass.  Therefore, those who want change must not be shy about this.

HJR 767 and SJR 942 deserve our support.

A version of this opinion was published in the Tampa Bay Times  January 4, 2016.  Betty Castor lives in Tampa and is a former University of South Florida president, state senator and commissioner of education and gave permission for this posting.


Take action now!   Tell legislators what you think about restoring the Commissioner of Education to an elected position.


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