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South Florida Sun Sentinel

January 7, 2002
By Bill Hirschman and Toni Marshall Education Writers

Schools chief aims for state overhaul

Florida's education czar wants to correct a system that prepares students to exit high school but in many cases fails to give them what they need to become productive in the workplace or succeed in college.

"We're not there," Jim Horne said Friday after six months as secretary of education. "We're not linked or designed to do that."

The answer is to consolidate, coordinate and overhaul the disconnected higher education, vocational and K-12 schools into what Gov. Jeb Bush calls "seamless K-20," he said.

"You have three very isolated, segregated kinds of delivery systems working more or less independent of each other. ... But for the most part there has been no real synergy; there has been no real effort to make it all come together, work together."

Under Horne's leadership, the broad strokes of that vision are beginning to coalesce into proposals.

As an example, he wants colleges and universities to give school districts, schools and teachers feedback about how their former students fared and where their program needs shoring up.

"A 12th-grade physics high school teacher, you would think, ought to want to talk with a college professor teaching freshman physics. It would be nice ... to tell a high school teacher what Johnny needs to know to succeed at the next level. That's never happened in Florida. Virtually that's never happened in the entire country."

He's not ready, although willing to, rewrite the nationally lauded Sunshine State Standards that set out what every student is supposed to learn in each subject in each grade.

"But we're not providing them with the tools they need to succeed in this new technologically driven society that we're in. Society has left us [behind]. It's not that the education system had gotten a lot worse, although some would argue that it has. ... But things have changed in society, and we need to adapt to that kind of change."

The way to catch up is to take away the barriers, which means one board exclusively dedicated to education.

A constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998 abolished the current structure and created a new one in June, although both remain in place through January 2003. The elected Commissioner of Education Charlie Crist is being replaced by a governor-appointed secretary of education, and the Florida Board of Education, made up of elected officials, is being replaced by a governor-appointed Florida Board of Education.

But the key was creating a single group to set priorities among groups "vying for resources, sometimes at each other's expense," Horne said.

"There's no one central strategic voice or strategic plan for education other than a legislative leader here or a governor deciding what path we need to be. There has never been one cohesive state board."

Although Horne and the state Board of Education say they want to preserve and even expand local control, he sees a serious need for a single group to set overall priorities.

"[It's] a bottom-up system. The individual institutions kind of come up with ideas of things they want. ... The best we do at the state level is we kind of vet it a little bit. ... It ought to be a top-down system. What are the priorities for the state of Florida? If we've got to produce more nurses, if we've got to produce more teachers, let's start and say that's our priorities and that's what we're going to fund and push that down into the system and look at ways where you can get better use of resources."

Horne and the board have been busy since June cobbling together proposals for the 2002-2003 budget and streamlining the voluminous state education code.

But several reforms are germinating in brainstorming sessions.

"We need to make teaching a real profession. We have yet to do that," he said.

He proposes a tiered system in which teachers would rise from novice to master teacher with pay incentives accompanying increasing responsibilities and competence.

Horne's vision will require more than the 12 months left on his appointment, and he hopes Bush will name him again in January 2003.

"I want to do this for a while. This is my passion. I really believe we're at a crossroads where we've got some huge challenges. But for the first time there seems to be the right kinds of pressure at the right kinds of places to make some systemic changes and make some huge progress."

Bill Hirschman can be reached at bhirschman@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4513. Toni Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4550.

Copyright 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel