Texas plan could reshape Floridas education

Some Florida university officials are trying to avoid being dubbed the “new Texas.”

According to Jacksonville news outlet news4jax.com, copies of a Texas plan for reforming higher education were sent to Florida university officials from Gov. Rick Scott, provoking responses “ranging from outright alarm to guarded enthusiasm.”

“Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” a plan touted by presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, calls on seven points to reform the way faculty is evaluated and compensated.

The plan, which was not adopted by the University of Texas system when it was proposed in 2008, has spurred much debate in recent months in Florida.

Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith said while he is unaware of anyone at USF who has received a copy, the plan was “narrowly focused” and “misinformed.”

“My only impression is that if I wanted to dismantle quality higher education in Florida, the Seven Breakthrough Solutions provides a recipe for doing so,” he said.

In response to the plan, Florida State University (FSU) President Eric Barron developed a counter-plan he presented to the FSU Board of Trustees in early September, called “Florida Can Do Better than Texas.”

FSU spokeswoman Browning Brooks said Barron developed the plan to respond to the discontent expressed across the state with the Texas plan.

“He wanted to come up with a better answer for Florida,” she said. “He tailored it to address the same issues.”

The plan calls for adaptations of the Texas solutions, in addition to an eighth solution that calls for increased accountability, an element Smith said is an essential improvement to the Texas plan.

“On the surface, (the Texas plan) offers cheap, easy solutions to complex problems,” he said. “The major strength (with Barron’s plan) is that it provides a much broader overview of what university education can offer.”

Smith said many of the proposed transparency reforms in Texas are already in place in Florida in forms like USF’s Dashboard, which provides data on graduation and retention rates to the general public online.

Brooks said Barron’s plan was designed to work better with the individual focuses of Florida universities, like USF’s emphasis on research.

Another point in the Texas plan calls for splitting research and teaching budgets to promote faculty excellence in both by basing departmental and college budgets “on the number of students taught and sponsored research dollars.”

Smith said the plan does not adequately address USF’s research programs.

“It especially shortchanges major research institutions and, in fact, demonstrates a surprising lack of knowledge on what they truly have to offer,” he said.

Barron’s plan calls for determining departmental and college budgets by “student credit hour generation and sponsored research dollars, as well as other measures of contribution” to ensure majors with higher costs, like science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, retain funding and allow fields, like arts and humanities, to continue being funded.

The Texas plan also places heavy emphasis on student satisfaction in compensating faculty, which Smith said could lead to “the hip, personable guy” being rewarded as opposed to professors with less student appeal that may actually foster more learning.

Student evaluations are currently taken into account as part of the formula that determines faculty salaries, but Smith said by completely ignoring peer review and other factors, the “essence of the evaluation system in universities” is blunted.

Smith did agree, however, with the sentiments behind the sudden movement for education reforms, which he said had to do in part with the scarcity of money available to public universities.

“I think (the plans) represent a note of discontent with the current state of higher education,” he said. “That needs to be addressed – just not with the solutions proposed.”

State University System of Florida Chancellor Frank Brogan said during the Board of Governors’ last meeting that he will bring copies of Barron’s plan to the November meeting.

Smith said the issues brought to the surface by the plan cannot be ignored.

“I don’t think we in higher education can have a knee-jerk defensiveness,” he said. “We can complain about what’s been proposed, but it behooves us to show we can do better.”