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Tallahassee Democrat

January 22, 2002
By Charles Patrick Garcia
(Appeared as a "My View" column)

Graham Should Embrace Change in Education, Not Fight It

Why does U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a former two-term governor and a man dedicated to serving this state and the education of its children, conjure images of "firing squads," "assassinations," and "anthrax-like infections" to sell a new incarnation of the now-abolished Board of Regents through an amendment to the Florida Constitution? Why does Sen. Graham want Florida to return to a centralized system of educational governance weighted down by a massive bureaucracy more concerned about retaining bloated budgets than the actual quality of education received by each student? Why does he ignore the university presidents who insist that the Board of Regents outlived its usefulness, and that the newly created Florida Board of Education and university boards of trustees are better able to serve local communities, focus on the needs of students, and look after their own interests before the Legislature?

Simply answered, because he fears change. But change is inevitable, and change should be embraced, especially when the status quo is not working, as was clearly the case with the Board of Regents. In 1998, Florida citizens amended the state constitution, receiving a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redesign an education governance model. To implement the mandate of the people, Gov. Jeb Bush, Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, and the Florida Legislature assembled a prestigious bipartisan Blue Ribbon Committee, followed by a transition task force. They brought together citizens and scholars representing all aspects of education.

In June 2001, based on their findings, Gov. Bush signed a sweeping education law, making Florida the first state in the nation to design, enact and implement an accountability-based, student-centered K-20 educational structure.

For the first time, public and private school systems and the community college and university systems are united and working collaboratively to ensure every student's educational needs are met. For the first time, Florida's educational system will be well coordinated. Our state will provide useful and current Web-based information on educational choices to families, both in the public and independent sectors. Florida will lead the nation in K-20 educational reform. Most important, Florida's governor will be held accountable for the education of the state's citizens.

Since the beginning of time, the world's most revolutionary ideas met the most resistance. Sen. Graham's efforts to impede educational modernization hark back to an 1829 letter by New York Gov. Martin Van Buren to President Andrew Jackson. The letter, like Sen. Graham's "firing squads" and "anthrax-like infections" metaphors, also defended the status quo by conjuring up practically the collapse of the world and mirrors the debate between Sen. Graham and Gov. Bush on this issue. Reflecting on this communication between these two titans of politics at the time seems so, well, silly. In this light, the good senator's disagreement with the governor over educational reforms seems equally silly. Sen. Graham is a great man of wisdom and integrity, clearly dedicated to education. I challenge him to spend one of his highly regarded "workdays" laboring shoulder-to-shoulder with the newly formed seven-member Florida Board of Education, whose accomplishments to date are in fact revolutionary.

Instead of fighting the electoral will of the citizens of Florida to amend, for a second time, the state's constitution, Sen. Graham could use his stature and experience to facilitate our efforts to secure as much federal funding as possible to benefit the students and teachers of Florida.

Charles Patrick Garcia is a member of the Florida Board of Education and the chairman and CEO of Sterling Financial Group of Companies, based in Boca Raton.