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Governance of Higher Education in Florida

Submitted by on March 30, 2008 – 9:31 amNo Comment

Dr.-Norman-Stephens-wide

The Florida Legislature is considering passage of a joint resolution proposing a constitutional amendment that would change the way education is governed in the state.  With passage of the joint resolution, the proposed amendment would appear on the ballot in November where it would require a sixty-percent approval of the voters before it would become part of the Florida Constitution.

There are several related issues in this debate. 

  1. Should the chief education officer of the state be elected or appointed?
  2. Should the State Board of Education be appointed or comprised of the elected cabinet officers?
  3. How much and what control over education and higher education should be in the hands of the governor, the State Board of Education, the legislature, state-wide coordinating boards, and local boards of education or boards of trustees?

The current system of governance is relatively new having evolved over the past 10 years through a series of constitutional amendments approved by the people.  As it now stands, the commissioner of education is the chief education official in Florida and is appointed by the Florida Board of Education which is appointed by the governor.  One of the key principles behind this approach was the idea of a coordinated K-20 system of education for Florida.  Then, before the new system could even be fully implemented, the voters approved the creation of a Board of Governors for the university system, also to be appointed by the governor.  Immediately, questions of authority arose between the two boards, the governor, and the legislature over matters such as tuition rates, as well as the creation or elimination of programs.

The legislative joint resolution would place on the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment changing the Commissioner of Education to a state-wide elected position.  It would eliminate the appointed Florida Board of Education and replace it with the elected cabinet officers of the state who together with the commissioner would comprise the new Florida Board of Education.  This is the way it used to be in Florida. 

The legislative joint resolution also proposes a statewide coordinating board for public colleges authorized to offer associate and baccalaureate degrees–the 28 existing community colleges.  Over the years since 1999, eight of these community colleges have been authorized to offer specific bachelor’s degrees in areas of critical need such as nursing, teaching, criminal justice, and various applied sciences.  Two more community colleges are approved pending funding, while several others are giving this strong consideration.   

Each of Florida’s community colleges has a local board of trustees appointed by the governor which would have to approve any change in their mission such as the addition of baccalaureate degree programs of study.  The legislative joint resolution maintains and protects the authority of the local boards of trustees of these colleges.  In fact, it would establish their authority in the Florida Constitution for the first time.

At the heart of the matter is “control” of education, and in particular higher education.  There has been a four-way contest between the legislature, the Florida Board of Education, the Board of Governors of the University System, and the governor over that “Control.”  Resolution of that debate has been and continunes to be the subject of litigation.   Frankly, this debate is not new and is not unique to Florida.  The joint resolution under consideration represents the Florida legislature’s present effort to resolve the matter–until a future legislature and the people decide to change it again.

We know from experience, and from the model of the United States Constitution, that effective systems of governance require checks and balances.  Too much authority in any person, group, office, or branch of government has the potential for special interests to rule or for corruption to occur.  This will do long term damage to the system, to the state, and to the people.  We also know that excessive checks and balances often leads to bloated and expensive bureaucracy and political gridlock.  This can be a tremendous burden to the taxpayers and frustratingly unresponsive to the needs of the people.  The best system of governance for education balances these pressures very carefully.  There is an important role for elected and appointed officials and for professional educators as well.  Let’s hope the Florida Legislature recognizes this in their joint resolution so that we have something worthy of our consideration on the ballot next November.

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