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not entirely preventing)
direct lobbying by
universities of friendly
legislators.
This, not surprisingly,
created tensions. It all
came to a head in 2000,
when the regents rejected
an elaborate political
horse trade designed
to bring a newmedical
school to Florida State,
and law schools to Florida
International and Florida
A&Muniversities. In each
case, angry legislators—
led by the powerful
Thrasher, who threatened
to hold up all other
business until the deal was
approved—stepped in and
reversed the board.
The legislators didn’t
stop there. Within a year,
on July 1, 2001, under
a sweeping statewide
education reform
famously hashed out by
Thrasher and Governor Jeb Bush on a napkin over dinner
and called the K–20 initiative, the Board of Regents itself was
dissolved. It was replaced by a single education “super board”
to oversee primary and secondary schools, the state’s 28
community colleges, and the 11 public universities, with their
285,289 students, 13,600 faculty, and $6.9 billion budget.
This new “seamless system,” putting all levels of
education under a single governing authority, was also
ostensibly meant to improve coordination, especially among
community colleges and universities—even though Florida
was already a leader in this area, with long-established
articulation agreements, common course numbers, and other
partnerships.
Regardless of the merits of the
K–20 idea, it really came down to this,
said Robert Atwell, retired president of
the American Council on Education,
who lives part-time in Florida: “The
Board of Regents was correct to
try to stop the (Florida A&M) law
school and the Florida State medical
school, but it cost them their life.”The
scheme to get rid of the regents, the
St.
Petersburg Times
editorialized, “was
plainly tinged with malice on the part
of House Speaker JohnThrasher and
other legislators who favored pricey new programs…that the
regents opposed. For more than 35 years, most legislatures
had allowed the regents to do what they were created to do:
minimize competition among the schools; get Florida the best
bang for a buck. Occasionally, however, legislators tried to get
rid of the regents. Finally, they succeeded.”
Backers of the new system insisted it would bring an end to
fighting among the various levels of education (and among the
public universities) over finite resources. The seamless system,
they said, also would result in better student preparation for
universities and better teacher preparation by them. And they
contended that another facet of the plan, which established
local boards of trustees for each of the public universities,
would help them better serve their own regions—an outcome
of the change that almost everyone now seems to agree has
been its greatest strength.
Critics countered that the fighting over resources would
be worse than ever. And, in fact, the University of Florida
soon had hired eight lobbyists, as political pressure for more
campuses and more programs grew. Long prevented from
offering four-year bachelor’s degrees, some community
colleges started to do so, to the consternation of the
universities. The local university boards of trustees started
their work by vying to see who could pay their presidents the
most. Some universities began to encroach on one another’s
turf; for example, Florida International University started
offering master’s degree programs near Florida Atlantic
University, and the University of Florida started anM.B.A.
program 314 miles away in Broward County, where Florida
Atlantic University has four campuses. It was warlike enough
to make one university president ask what the “rules of
engagement” were.
Meanwhile, another powerful legislator pushed through
an Alzheimer’s research center at the University of South
Florida, and named it for his father. With the Board of Regents
no longer serving as a buffer, many such “member projects,”
as they were euphemistically termed (“little turkeys,” one
higher education official called them privately), showed up
in the budgets of community colleges and universities. Santa
Fe Community College, for example, was compelled to open
a branch in a legislator’s sparsely populated home district.
When the agricultural arm of the University of Florida tried to
close a facility in the Senate president’s hometown, he passed
legislation preventing services there from ever being cut. A
bipartisan group of former state officials and educators would
ultimately call Florida’s higher education governance system “a
banana republic rife with gamesmanship.”
Within months, statewide budget problems threatened a
billion dollars in cuts for education, and the various factions
dug in. Opponents of the “seamless system” said they had been
right all along—that the different education sectors would
be at each other’s throats for money. There was no question
that the funding was needed to serve the state’s exploding
population. The primary and secondary schools that year
found themselves with 16,000 unanticipated students. It was a
familiar problem.
Public universities have grown by 100,000 students in
the last 15 years. (Florida Gulf Coast University alone, which
opened in 1997 on former swampland near Fort Myers,
already has more than 6,000 students, and expects 15,000 by
2010.) Yet while three Florida public universities now rank
in the top ten in size, only the University of Florida ranks
nationally in quality. As the budget crisis raged, Florida
continued to be near the bottom of the 50 states in education
Chairman Carolyn Roberts of the state university
Board of Governors hopes to cut down on the “end
runs” that campus presidents make around the board
to reach key legislators.
Florida’s sweeping
2001 education reform
was famously hashed
out by Governor Jeb
Bush and Florida’s
speaker of the House
on a napkin over dinner.
Todd Anderson, Black Star, for CrossTalk