If Don Gaetz gives you a task, he will make sure you get it done.
That’s how Cindy Frakes remembers Gaetz, whom she worked with in the Okaloosa County schools. Gaetz was the superintendent then, in the early 2000s. Frakes was, and still is, a member of the school board.
Gaetz kept a list, Frakes said, and he knew what had been finished and what hadn’t
“He was never going to forget,” she says. “Everybody knew he was coming back. He had a lot of respect.”
Under Gaetz, Okaloosa schools rose from middle of the pack, according to the state’s report card system, to the state’s highest- or second-highest scoring district.
Now Gaetz, a Republican, is president of the Florida Senate. And he is pushing similar changes across Florida.
Gaetz is a former journalist and hospital executive who saw politics as a way to make big changes for schools and health. Gaetz won his first election for school board in 1994. He was elected superintendent in 2000, resigning the post when he won his Senate seat in 2006.
“I learned early on that if you want to do something differently, if you want to do something innovative, generally speaking, there’s a door you have to go through in Tallahassee or Washington to get it done,” he told StateImpact Florida in an interview last week. “I wanted to try and get through the door in Washington or in Tallahassee to do something to improve health care, to do something to improve the educational quality of my own children’s schools.”
Career Certifications In School
In Okaloosa, Gaetz said, he had three goals: Improve student performance, solidify financial management and create better customer relations with parents, teachers and the community. Frakes said Gaetz’ best talent was the ability to identify and hire smart, capable people.
As Senate leader, his focus this year is the Career and Professional Education Act, or CAPE. That’s a Florida law that helps business create special academies within high schools to provide students real-world job experience. Gaetz wants to expand the program to middle schools.
Businesses create the academies and curriculum based on what workers they need and supplying he instructors and testing. Academy graduates can earn professional certifications and college or university credit.
This year, Florida students can earn 428 different certifications in things like computer networking products, computer-assisted design or becoming a registered cardiac sonographer.
“It’s not your grandparents’ vo-tech,” Gaetz said, referring to the old vocational job programs that focused on trades. “It’s rigorous academic coursework, but it’s applied coursework.”
Gaetz learned from his brother, who struggled with geometry in school. But after earning his high school diploma in the Navy, Gaetz said, his brother applies geometry as a cabinet maker.
“This will allow kids to get such a jump,” said Adam Giery, who works on education issues for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “The senator and his staff reached out to the business community. They brought in the stakeholders and said, ‘How can we make this work?’ Not the other way around.”
A Bush Acolyte
Gaetz considers himself an acolyte of former Gov. Jeb Bush and admires Bush’s thinking on education, particularly when it comes to school choice. When the Foundation for Florida’s Future – an organization Bush founded — released legislative grades last year, Gaetz earned a spot on the honor roll.
Earlier this year the state’s teacher’s union complained that a House bill would change evaluation requirements for charter school teachers. If so, comparing charter school teacher evaluations to traditional school teacher evaluations would be unfair, the union argued.
The Florida Department of Education says the dispute was a misunderstanding, and that all teachers at publicly funded schools are subject to the same evaluation requirements.
“I’ve been in business for 30 years. I’ve never asked for an even playing field,” Gaetz said of the complaints at the time. “You can’t make everything equal…but you’re not going to get paid the same, you’re not going to get treated the same.”
That drew ire around the state from teachers, parents and others who disapprove of Florida’s education policies.
“This man oozes contempt for public schools and public school teachers,” wrote blogger Chris Guerrieri.
New Graduation Standards?
Gaetz, with the CAPE bill, and House lawmakers have proposed easing Florida high school graduation requirements. That has drawn scrutiny from the Foundation for Florida’s Future.
For years Florida lawmakers — supported by the foundation — have added more requirements for graduation, such as two years of algebra and taking at least one online course. The director of the Foundation For Florida’s Future cautioned House lawmakers against “walking away” from high graduation standards.
The alternative diploma route is no less rigorous than the traditional diploma, Gaetz said. Those students would still be completing highly technical courses, he said, but might find those classes more relevant to their career plans.
“We still want students to be able to pass algebra,” he said. “We want them to be able to read.
“But if they can learn other skills in an applied fashion, what we found was, in our schools when we did this, students were coming early, staying late. They were excited. They were interested.”
He also argued Florida should meet a fall 2014 deadline to implement new education standards, known as Common Core, and an accompanying test which will replace most of the FCAT.
Lawmakers, Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and others have questioned whether the new test will be ready, or whether Florida schools will have the computers, tablets and bandwidth needed to administer the online exam.
Frakes, the Okaloosa County school board member, says the county won’t finish retrofitting its schools for three more years.
“All of us on the local level are concerned,” she said.
Florida is behind schedule, Gaetz said, but he expects the state and districts will meet the deadline.
After all, it’s on his list.
“I believe we ought to make sure our schools and our districts are ready,” Gaetz said. “I think under Tony Bennett’s direction that can happen.”