Crist says Florida education improving

It wasn’t hard for Raymond Gross, a circuit court judge and USF professor, to convince the highest-ranking education official in the state to come speak in his class Tuesday. He just asked him.

Charlie Crist, Florida Commissioner of Education, spent almost an hour answering questions from students about educational issues such as teacher salaries, school accountability and Florida’s poor education reputation. The site for the informal question and answer session was the Human Services building at a Florida public policy class taught by Gross and Moshen Milani.

Crist recognized that the status of education in Florida needs to be improved. He said, however, education is getting a major makeover, which is, in part, due to record amounts of funds equaling $2.4 billion over the past few years.

“The reputation of education in our state has been less than good,” Crist said. “But now you’re seeing the most dramatic changes in education in our state in the last three years.”

A student asked Crist how he made sure that part of the $2.4 billion raised was going to the schools that needed it most, such as schools that received poor grades from the state, and not just schools that received monetary rewards for exemplary grades.

“When you start to grade a school and hold them accountable, things begin to change,” Crist said. “Not to do so would hurt the children.”

Crist said though many disagree with that idea, it is still the responsibility of the state to evaluate schools and hold them accountable.

“People say it’s not nice to give a school an F or a D,” Crist said. “But if we are willing to give out grades to 5 and 6-year-olds, then shouldn’t we be able to grade the schools that are responsible for these children?”

He did say, however, striving for equality among schools is a goal that can’t be overlooked.

“We need to do better. We need to promote (equality),” he said. “We can never not pay attention to it.”

One student complained that teachers are grossly underpaid. Crist did not argue but said the situation is getting better.

“Teachers’ salaries are improving,” he said. “(Salaries) are getting higher, but they are not high enough.”

Crist said though raising the average salaries of state teachers is a must, money should not be the only motivator when considering a job in public education.

“We want people who aren’t just motivated by money, but also motivated by opening a student’s mind,” he said.

Crist said since the terrorist attacks just over three weeks ago, he has been doing his part to ensure safety in Florida’s schools.”We’ve been holding safety summits around the state to find out what we can do to make our schools safer than they are now,” Crist said.

Crist said the state has augmented spending on safety in the schools. The state has spent more than $70 million over the past five years, he said. One major development to come from the spending is the development of CD-ROMs that map out every public school in the state.

He said the CDs are being created to help eliminate the “three hours of terror” period. Crist described this period as the amount of time it takes between an emergency incident and the ability of authorities to locate a school, understand its infrastructure and surroundings and plan a safe way to evacuate all the students.About 40 students were in attendance, and they shared mixed views on the depth of the commissioner’s words.

“I think he is very real and down to earth and dedicated to bringing education up to par,” junior Jessica Harding said.

Laura Pape, a senior, disagreed.

“I think he is a very personable and respectable man, but he did not inspire confidence,” Pape said. “I think there are a lot of things he could have said that he left out. He wasn’t as open as he should have been.”

Megan Rentz, a senior, said Crist’s guest appearance gave her confidence in Florida public education.

“I was impressed with what he had to say and how they are going to handle situations since Sept. 11,” Rentz said. “Looks like Florida is heading in the right direction.”

Crist is familiar with the Tampa area. Having moved to St. Petersburg at a young age, Crist is a graduate at St. Petersburg High School and Florida State University.

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