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Surprising Cast Sets the Stage for Politics in Florida

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In Florida these days, nothing is as easy as black and white, or Democrat and Republican.

Voters themselves set the confusion into motion last November. They narrowly re-elected Gov. Lawton Chiles, helping him beat the odds in a tide of Republican victories that unseated other prominent Democrats across the country.

At the same time, the electorate elevated a Republican to the state education commissioner's job for the first time and handed control of the Senate to Republicans for the first time in more than a century.

The surprises have kept coming this year as Mr. Chiles, a longtime advocate of education and children's programs, has shied away from an activist role.

He opened the legislative session last month by suggesting that any major education issues be taken up later. And educators complained that the Governor proposed a budget that would not pay for the 80,000 new students Florida gains each year.

Meanwhile, the new education commissioner, Frank T. Brogan, practically seemed like a spendthrift. He asked lawmakers for $240 million more for schools than Mr. Chiles had proposed and then told the legislators that it was their job to find the additional money.

Yet as the crusading conservative and the low-profile liberal work with a divided legislature eager to consider new directions in education policy, many educators question whether the political season will produce much beyond an oddly revamped cast of characters.

No-Cost Reforms

Lawmakers have used the early part of this year's session to tackle a host of issues that--like almost any big change in the state's chronically crowded schools--could cost taxpayers dearly.

Top House Democrats have backed a plan to limit class sizes to 20 students and suggested implementing the system one grade at a time, beginning next year with the 1st grade.

Lawmakers also have discussed splitting the state's large county school districts into smaller, more manageable parts, as well as considering the notion of lengthening the school year.

But observers note that anything on the legislature's agenda bows to its most important priority: no new taxes. And that is a position on which all of the state's leading politicians seem to agree.

It may be that common stance that nullifies the differences between the parties.

"They may be wanting to try some new things, but in each instance where they are planning to do anything, they will have to take money away from a program that is already in existence," said Jim Barrett, a lobbyist for the Florida Teaching Profession-N.E.A. That group, like most other education groups, is watching the new mix of politicians carefully as it tries to determine where school policy in the state is headed.

The Senate last week voted 33 to 7 for a charter-school bill that would allow all of the state's school boards to grant contracts to groups that would operate schools free of most state regulations in exchange for meeting certain performance targets. A companion bill is scheduled to make it to the House floor this week.

Lawmakers are also expected to begin moving a plan advanced by Mr. Brogan aimed at wiping out most of the state's education laws by next year, forcing the legislature to come up with a new, more flexible system.

The legislature may also take up another deregulation proposal designed to combine appropriations to the state's preschool program and its Healthy Start prenatal-care program into a lump-sum payment that would be portioned out to school districts to spend as they wanted.

Local Perspective

Mr. Brogan arrived in Tallahassee boasting the horse sense of a former superintendent.

As the schools chief in Martin County, a district sandwiched between Lake Okeechobee and the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Brogan had criticized the state's Blueprint 2000 site-based-decisionmaking program as a needless layer of bureaucracy.

And on the heels of a campaign in which he called for state-paid vouchers that parents could use to help pay tuition at private schools, Mr. Brogan quickly has become an outspoken supporter of several efforts intended to reduce the influence of state-driven school reforms.

For starters, Mr. Brogan proposed eliminating 350 jobs from the 1,500-person education department.

"Our education system is still mired in too much red tape that has no positive impact on teaching and learning," he said earlier this year in announcing his plans as commissioner. And he defined the state's role in education as "fulfilling only those functions that can't be carried out as well or better at the district or school level."

In that respect, Mr. Brogan has found a sympathizer in Governor Chiles, a longtime politician whose early career was characterized by his support of traditional Democratic programs aimed at helping poor families and children.

Since Mr. Chiles retired from the U.S. Senate in 1988, however, Florida observers say he has become more enigmatic.

Many analysts still wonder what to make of his rhetoric this year, in which he has railed against state regulation and argued for a more open climate for businesses and a smaller government.

Education observers say that, so far, Mr. Chiles has given few signs that he is interested in putting his stamp on the school-policy debate under way in the state capital.

"We haven't seen any big runs by the Governor or his people at all this session," observed John Gaines, the chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

To many, this year's legislative session is mostly about feeling out the state's new leadership cast. Until the discussion becomes one about money, educators say, the state's most serious issues are only being postponed.

"We agree 100 percent with putting more authority in the hands of local schools," saidJ. Howard Hinesley, the superintendent of the 102,000-student Pinellas County schools. "But what has to be addressed is growth and additional resources."

"You can't move this pea under the shell around too many more times before we are going to have to deal with a crisis," Mr. Hinesley said.

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