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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
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Florida's new "K-20" Model
An intensely political battle is waged over controversial kindergarten-through graducate-school governance structure

By William Trombley
Senior Editor

Tallahassee, Florida

ON THE 15TH FLOOR of the Florida Education Center, across the street from the state capitol, half of the Florida State University System offices are empty. The chancellor has resigned, along with several other top system administrators. The security guard in the lobby did not know that the ten-campus system, and its Board of Regents, were housed in the building, perhaps because soon they will not be.

On July 1, the regents will disappear and the state university will become part of a “seamless” education system, from kindergarten through graduate school, to be run by a seven-member “super board.” There will be a Commissioner of Education, sometimes referred to as the “education czar,” and three deputy commissioners-one for the state’s 3,500 public schools, a second for its 28 community colleges and a third for the ten university campuses .

As this issue of National CrossTalk went to press, the legislature was about to approve the plan and Republican Governor Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, was expected to sign it into law.

Although all levels of education in the state will be affected eventually, the most immediate impact will be felt by the university system, with its 240,000 students, 13,600 faculty members and $5 billion budget.

Instead of a statewide Board of Re-gents, there will be separate, 11-member governing boards for each campus. These trustees, as well as the seven members of the super board will be appointed by the governor, greatly increasing his influence over higher education. Members of the super board and the local boards will serve four-year terms and can be dismissed by the governor “for cause.”

The job of education commissioner or “czar” changes from an elected to an appointed post, and it was thought the first occupant would be “Chain Gang” Charlie Crist, who earned his nickname when, as a state legislator, he reintroduced striped clothing and leg shackles to the Florida state prison system.

Crist was elected education commissioner last November, and, until a few weeks ago, it seemed likely that Governor Bush would appoint him to the same post in the new governance arrangement. Then Crist attacked both academic freedom and faculty tenure within the space of a few days, and now it seems unlikely that he will be asked to supervise the shift from the old system to the new.

The local governing boards will hire and fire campus presidents, subject to review by the new Florida Board of Education, the “super board.” They also will approve new academic programs up to the master’s degree and conduct collective bargaining negotiations, among other duties.

  U.S. Senator Bob Graham warns that the new governance structure will lead to increased political interference in the university.
The goal is to provide more autonomy for the campuses and to eliminate or streamline statewide functions. “The university system was run by the Board of Regents in a collegial fashion, with a concept of centralized management,” Phil Handy, the Orlando multimillionaire and Bush ally who ran the “transition task force” that recommended these changes, said in an interview. “That kind of thing is a bit antiquated.”

Handy believes a single board, made up of seven unpaid gubernatorial appointees, can adequately oversee all of Florida education and its three million students.

“It happens in America every day at Cisco (Internet systems), at Dell (computers), at well-run companies everywhere,” he said. “It’s a corporate model and it works because you define properly what the board does—it sets broad policy, management carries out that policy and the board holds the chief executive responsible.”

Handy dismissed the argument that universities are not like corporations and do not usually respond well to the corporate model. “If anybody has the courage to follow us, this will become the model for the United States,” he declared.

State Senator Jim Horne, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who carried the reorganization bill in the Senate, is equally enthusiastic about the new approach. “For the first time, we’ll be funding the entire educational system, instead of having these food fights over resources,” he said.

Opponents argue that, if anything, the new decentralized structure will aggravate the “food fights” between educational segments and within the university system itself.

Representative Evelyn Lynn, chief sponsor of the super board legislation in the House of Representatives, said she hoped the new governance arrangements would eliminate the “total disconnect between higher education and K–12.”

Except in the field of teacher education, however, neither Lynn nor anyone else has spelled out what might be done to bring about closer cooperation between Florida’s universities and its public schools.

Opponents believe that the new governance structure will mean more political interference than before and that it threatens academic freedom at the state universities and on community college campuses.

“Unfortunately, Florida has had a history of gubernatorial and legislative intrusion” into higher education, U.S. Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat, told the transition task force earlier this year. He cited the Johns Committee, a legislative group that started out searching for links between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and communism in the late 1950s. Finding few, the committee turned its attention to homosexuals, resulting in the dismissal of at least 39 professors and deans at three state universities, during an investigation that lasted nine years.

Adam W. Herbert, former chancellor of the Florida State University System, resigned after both his job and the university’s Board of Regents were abolished.  
“None of us are naive enough to believe that the temptation for political meddling in academia was halted in the 1960s,” cautioned Graham, who intends to sponsor areferendum that would undo the new plan.

Modesto (“Mitch”) Maidique, president of 31,000-student Florida International University, in Miami, said the threats to academic freedom and faculty tenure are exaggerated.

“Academic freedom and tenure are protected by civil rights laws, by the courts, by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and by good administrators,” said Maidique, whose campus has been the target of occasional protests by right wing Cuban American groups.

However, observers wonder how Maidique would deal with a local board of trustees controlled by ultra-conservative Cuban Americans, as Florida International’s might well turn out to be. Similar concerns were expressed about the influence the “Bull Gators” (powerful University of Florida alumni) might have on that campus board, or Florida State University alumni on the FSU board.

Education Commissioner Charlie Crist’s recent attacks on academic freedom and faculty tenure have done little to reassure critics that the universities would be immune from political interference.

Angered when Florida Atlantic University administrators cited academic freedom in defending a campus production of Terrence McNally’s play “Corpus Christi,” in which Christ is portrayed as a homosexual, Crist wrote to editors of the state’s leading newspapers.

“Academic freedom is the final refuge in which professors hide when confronted with the absurdity and arrogance of their decisions,” the Crist letter said. “It is a wasteland entirely unmoored from standards, where any activity can be justified…”

A few days later, in an interview with the Gainesville Sun, Crist suggested that it was time to review the concept of faculty tenure, which seeks to guarantee that professors can do controversial work, and make controversial statements, without fear of being fired.

Faculty leaders immediately criticized Crist.

“A man with such a limited vision should not be in a position to define education policy,” said Nancy Jane Tyson, faculty senate president at the University of South Florida.

The governance overhaul began when Florida voters approved a 1998 constitutional amendment that created the new state Board of Education, changed the Commissioner of Education from an elected to an appointed position and charged the board and the commissioner with supervising the state’s “system of free public education.” Ever since, there has been a dispute as to whether voters intended to include higher education or were concerned only with elementary and secondary schools.

“It was our understanding that we were to revamp the entire educational system,” Representative Lynn said. “The people of Florida had indicated they wanted that.”

But Senator Tom Rossin, the Democratic floor leader in the Senate, disagreed. “I’m quite sure voters thought they were dealing with K–12,” Rossin said. “The general feeling was that the four-year schools and community colleges were doing fine but there were problems with K–12.”

This argument probably will have to be settled in court. In the meantime, most of the changes have involved higher education, not the supposedly troubled public schools .

Last August the transition task force, headed by Phil Handy, was appointed by Governor Bush and legislative leaders to recommend how the change should be made to a new “seamless, student-centered” K–20 governance model. The task force held several meetings around the state, heard from some experts and, on March 1 of this year, sent the super board proposal to the governor and the legislature.

Faculty leaders say they were left out of the process. “We weren’t involved and neither was anybody else,” said Rosie Webb Joels, professor of education at the University of Central Florida and president of the United Faculty of Florida. “The task force knew exactly where they were heading.”

Although the constitutional amendment called for changes by January 2003, the task force recommended, and the legislature has agreed, that existing education boards, including the Board of Regents and the State Board of Community Colleges, should be abolished by July 1 of this year.

Governor Bush is to appoint members of the super board and the local university boards between July 1 and November 1, but it is not clear how much authority the local boards will have, nor when they will begin to exercise it. Many details have not been worked out and will be left for next year’s legislative session.

The general thrust of the legislation came as no surprise to Bush. He and former House Speaker John Thrasher, a Jacksonville Republican, had sketched out the framework for the super board plan on a restaurant napkin over dinner a year and a half ago, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported.

Both Bush and Thrasher have acknowledged that the dinner discussion took place. “The governor and I had a meeting, we started to talk about some ideas and we started writing some things down on a big napkin,” Thrasher said in an interview. “We just didn’t happen to have any paper.”

Bush told the Sarasota paper, “I believe that three systems or five, if you count the private schools and pre-kindergarten—are disjointed and it is time to have a seamless system that is more student oriented. I think over time this will yield many innovations that will yield higher student achievement and a more relevant education experience for the diverse group of Floridians seeking educational opportunities.”

In effect, the work of the transition task force and the legislature amounted to little more than rubber-stamping the plan drawn up by Bush and Thrasher.

“It was a blatant political ploy,” said Joan Ruffier, a prominent Orlando Democrat who was a member of the Board of Regents from 1985 to l991. “I think we’re going to have a system that’s more political, not less. I don’t understand why the governor is just jumping ahead with this, without asking any advice from national experts who actually know something about higher education.”

Since Florida’s state university system has been generally thought to be on the rise in recent years, many wonder why the governance change is being made.

“You ask why Florida is doing this. The answer is pretty simple,” said Patrick Riordan, director of the Resource Center for Florida History and Politics at the University of South Florida, in Tampa. “We had this election and Jeb Bush won.”

“Jeb Bush has been talking about this for six years,” said Anthony Catanese, president of Florida Atlantic University, in affluent Boca Raton. “He has strong reservations about big government, especially Tallahassee government, and he saw the regents as an important part of that.”

However, there were many other contributing causes, including a history of tension between the Board of Regents and the legislature.

In recent years the regents, at the recommendation of Chancellor Adam W. Herbert, rejected proposals for a new medical school at Florida State University and new law schools at Florida International and Florida A&M, the only historically black institution in the system. In each case, the action was reversed by the legislature.

The new system, “while not ideal, would likely be somewhat better” than its predecessor, University of Florida President Charles E. Young told his campus foundation board.  
The medical school decision was particularly galling to former House Speaker Thrasher, a Florida State graduate who, many believe, would like to be president of that institution one day.

“The chancellor and the regents alienated a number of powerful legislators, especially Thrasher, who was the most powerful and vindictive Speaker I have seen in more than 30 years,” said E.T. York, Jr., the retired former chancellor of the statewide system.

Herbert further irritated lawmakers when he refused to consider Donald Sullivan, an influential state senator from St. Petersburg, as a candidate for the presidency of the University of South Florida because Sullivan, an orthopedist, lacked academic experience.

“If the chancellor and the regents are going to do their job, they’re going to alienate some individuals and some groups,” York said. “Otherwise, what good are they?”

Some believe the Board of Regents has lost stature in recent years because of weak appointments by former Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles. “The two governors who preceded Chiles (Democrat Bob Graham and Republican Bob Martinez) made some strong appointments to the board, but Chiles tended to pick his hunting and fishing buddies,” a longtime observer of Florida educational politics said.

Others blame Herbert, the departed chancellor, who was thought to have done a good job as president of the University of North Florida but did not seem to take to the rough and tumble of dealing with the legislature that the systemwide chancellor’s job required. Many critics compared his performance unfavorably with that of his predecessor, Charles B. Reed, who is now chancellor of the California State University system.

“The regents and the chancellor are supposed to be a buffer between the politicians and the academics,” said a current member of the Board of Regents, who asked not to be identified. “Charley Reed did that but Adam did not.”

“I’m a close friend of Adam’s and I like him a lot, but Adam is a policy guy. He didn’t have the street smarts that the job required,” said Anthony Catanese, the Florida Atlantic University president.

Several regents and former regents said Herbert, an African American and a Republican, was chosen for the chancellor’s job in part because he was close to Jeb Bush. Herbert chaired Bush’s gubernatorial transition team and supported Bush’s controversial “One Florida” plan, an alternative to affirmative action that angered many of the state’s black leaders.

Florida State University President Talbot (“Sandy”) D’Alemberte is pleased that power will be transferred from the statewide system to local campuses.  
Herbert is said to have argued against the super board idea, but when it became clear that the governor was determined to press ahead and that both the Board of Regents and the chancellor’s position would be eliminated, he resigned and returned to the University of North Florida to run a new public policy institute.

All of these factors, and doubtless others, contributed to what Tom Healy, vice chancellor for governmental affairs in the statewide office, called the “perfect storm,” which blew away the Board of Regents and other state education boards. In their place stands the new kindergarten-through-graduate-school governance structure.

Idaho is the only other state with a K–20 super board, but Idaho’s total enrollment at all educational levels is only 300,000, compared with Florida’s three million students. The New York State Board of Regents theoretically oversees all of education but as a practical matter spends most of its time on K–12 and has little to do with higher education.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a K–20 agenda anywhere,” said Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a Boulder, Colorado, consulting firm that works all over the country.

The transition task force report says the “seamless” K–20 system would lead to better teacher preparation programs, reduce the need for remedial instruction, end the competition between community colleges and public schools over job training programs, and reduce the “mission creep” that takes place when two-year community colleges seek to become four-year institutions, or universities try to add an endless array of graduate and professional programs. But neither the report nor supporters of the new plan offer many specifics on how any of this would be accomplished.

“All this ‘seamless’ talk is garbage, but it sounds good. It’s good politics,” said John V. Lombardi, former president of the University of Florida, who now runs a policy center on the Gainesville campus. “If you want things to be seamless, you just pass a law making it what you want it to be.”

Some campus officials think closer cooperation between the state universities and the public schools might lead to better teacher preparation and could help to alleviate the state’s chronic shortage of qualified elementary and secondary school teachers.

“Floridians of all persuasions are worried about the schools,” said David Colburn, provost at the University of Florida. “I think we can help to mobilize the intellectual capital of the universities to work on that problem but I don’t know that we can perform miracles.”

Some of the university presidents, especially Florida International’s Maidique, have long advocated a decentralized system, with more authority at the local campus level. “I think a reasonably independent local governing board, working with the president, will be better able to address the concerns of the southeast Florida region,” he said.

Former statewide Chancellor E. T. York, Jr., hopes voters will overturn the Bush plan in a 2002 referendum vote.  
“I think they’ve got it about right,” said Florida State University President Talbot (“Sandy”) D’Alemberte. “There was a big shift in my thinking when they decided to decentralize the power that had been accumulated by the Board of Regents.”

D’Alemberte said the presidents are pleased that the legislation allows individual campuses to increase or lower tuition. At Florida State, that will mean more financial aid for low-income students, he said.

Charles E. Young, longtime chancellor at UCLA and now president of the University of Florida, told his foundation board that the new governance structure “while not ideal, would likely be somewhat better than the system we had before,” the Gainesville Sun reported.

“Given the failure of the Board of Regents to protect the universities from political interference and duplication of programs in its higher education system, we (the campus presidents) felt the loss of whatever it was the Board of Regents was supposed to do would not be too great,” Young said.

However, Young suggested that there should be a separate statewide governing board for the ten university campuses, in addition to the K–20 super board, and that the new university board should be given constitutional status, as a shield against political intrusion. He also recommended that terms for local and statewide board members should be 12 to 16 years, not four years, as the task force proposed.

None of these suggestions has been incorporated into the bills now moving through the legislature but they are likely to be part of Senator Graham’s proposed referendum.

  Florida Governor Jeb Bush sketched the outline for the new "K-20" approach on a dinner napkin 18 months ago.
Although each campus is expected to have more autonomy under the K–20 plan, some observers believe the presidents will be more constrained than before. “They don’t realize the kind of scrutiny they’re going to be under—from board members, local news media and the general public,” said William B. Proctor, executive director of the Florida Postsecondary Education Planning Commission.

A high-ranking administrator at one campus agreed. “If we had a controversial item, we could sneak it into a thick packet of regents’ materials every month, and sometimes nobody would notice,” he said. “Now, I’m not sure we can get away with that.”

The plan’s critics say it not only thre a tens academic freedom but also will lead to intense competition for state dollars among the ten state universities. The University of Florida, which already employs eight lobbyists in Tallahassee during legislative sessions, plans to add even more; other campuses will follow suit.

Individual legislators are likely to seek expensive new programs, even entire new campuses, for their districts. Bills have been introduced to allow all 28 community colleges to offer some four-year degrees; to grant full autonomy to the St. Petersburg branch of the University of South Florida; and to permit 600-student New College, in Sarasota, to break away from the University of South Florida and become an independent institution.

“It will be intensely political,” said Lombardi, the former University of Florida president, “but what else is new? It always has been.”

Many higher education officials believe Florida’s tax system is inadequate to support the existing ten state universities, much less add more. There is no state income tax, property taxes are moderate and most of the state’s revenue comes from sales tax. With the state’s economy sagging, Governor Bush has proposed an $11.5 million cut in the 2001-2002 higher education budget. The Board of Regents had requested a 13.8 percent increase.

“Florida is not in a position to have ten research universities,” Senator Graham said in an interview, “but we can have at least one center of academic excellence at each campus. To do that, we need a strong central governing board to make those tough decisions.”

Opponents of the Bush K–20 plan are gathering around the 64-year-old Graham, who was governor of Florida for two terms and has been a U.S. senator since 1986. Graham says he expects to challenge the plan in court and also with a referendum that he hopes to qualify for the November 2002 ballot. The referendum would create a new statewide governing board for the universities (probably not called the Board of Regents), with constitutional status, and it would require the legislature to make lump sum appropriations to the ten campuses, instead of giving legislators line-item control over spending.

Graham has been holding “sounding out” meetings around the state, to see how much support there is for the referendum, which would require 490,000 valid signatures to make the ballot. So far, he said, “people seem to be interested.”

Others wonder how much voter interest there is in this issue. “How many people care?” asked a statewide education official. “How many even know we have a Board of Regents?”

“Only a small group of apologists for the Board of Regents support him,” said Phil Handy, the task force chairman.

But John Lombardi is not so sure. “Graham is still very popular; he has never lost a statewide election,” he pointed out. “If he pushes hard, this will get on the ballot and, if it gets on the ballot, it could pass.”

A battle between the state’s two most popular politicians—Graham and Jeb Bush—over a seemingly obscure issue like education governance seems unlikely but it could happen.

Should the Graham referendum be approved by voters, Bush’s decentralized K–20 system would be tossed out after only two years, to be replaced by yet another governance structure.

“We would have a rather chaotic situation here,” acknowledged former Chancellor E.T. York, Jr., who supports the Graham referendum, “but it’s better to have a little chaos in the short term than have to live with a bad system in the long term.”

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