New state education bill signed at USF

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed the 1776-page School Code Rewrite Bill, considered by some to be the largest bill ever considered in Legislature, at USF Thursday.

The bill-signing ceremony, held in the College of Education, was attended by more than 200 faculty, educational administrators and several members of the House of Representatives. Bush, in putting pen to paper, brought into effect Senate Bill 20-E, the new Florida School Code.

The rewrite, which began in July 2001, reduced 5,000 pages of education statues to a more modest 1,776 pages. The bill is intended to give universities and colleges more independence and to bring an end to the practice of social promotion, where students are advanced to the next grade even though they have not reached the required standard. The new school code also reflects recent changes to the organization of state education implemented by the Bush administration, such as the abolition of the Board of Regents and making the commissioner of education an appointed rather than elected position.

Bush acknowledged the contribution of educators, educational administrators and legislators who collaborated to produce the bill.

“It gives true autonomy and powers to universities through the boards of trustees and the presidents to be able to shape the future of their universities,” Bush said. “It was not an easy process, and I’m proud that I’ll be able to sign this bill into law.”

The Senate rejected the bill on two previous occasions, the latter after controversy erupted regarding the wording of a provision in the bill concerning students” right to pray in school.

“We had a couple of fumbles on the 2-yard line, which is only evidence that the legislative process is not a perfect one,” Bush said.

Bush cited the statistic that 30 percent of children in fourth grade are reading at a below-standard level. He said the passing of the new bill meant such a situation was no longer acceptable in Florida.

Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan said the signing of the bill was an important landmark in the history of education in Florida.

“It is important to understand the importance of what we do today,” said Brogan. “(The bill) creates a user-friendly document, it brings (the school code) into 21st century compliance with our new governor’s structure, and it provides an unprecedented amount of local control and flexibility at all levels of education.”

The empowerment of local boards of trustees, said USF President Judy Genshaft, would help institutions such as USF.

“(The bill) ensures institutional boards and their chief executive officers have the responsibility, and they have the authority to move the institutions forward.”

Gregory Paveza, president of the USF Faculty Senate, said the transfer of power from regional boards to local boards of trustees potentially gives faculty some influence over educational policy.

“On some levels, it means that faculty will have a more direct voice in the policies of the universities than we have ever had before,” Paveza said. “With the board of regents system all the policies were dictated from an extreme distance and there was no real faculty input.”

Paveza said he would suspend judgment on whether collective bargaining at a local level would strengthen or weaken faculty’s position.

“There’s a possibility that it could weaken the faculty’s leverage,” said Paveza. “On the other hand, it may also free up each of the local units to more directly negotiated contracts that reflect some of the specific needs of the faculty on each campus, as opposed to trying to come up with an omnibus contract to try to do the best for the majority.”