Higher Education Needs Reform: The Blue Ribbon Task Force

May 8, 2012  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

By Barney Bishop, Strategic Public Affairs, Expert Out Loud

If you are an eternal optimist then Governor Rick Scott’s veto of enhanced education funding for the University of Florida and Florida State University last week was an omen of good things to come.  For in his veto letter the Governor clearly laid out a roadmap of how this concept could pass his muster the next time it comes to his desk.

Much was written by the mainstream press about the Governor’s veto and that it was wrong-headed to do.  Yet, on Friday the Governor announced a seven member Blue Panel Task Force on State Higher Education Reform led by the very capable Dr. Dale Brill, President of the Florida Chamber Foundation that along with SUS Chancellor Frank Brogan and the Florida Board of Governors will provide recommendations that would allow FSU and UF to raise their tuition higher than the other universities in the state.  The much lauded goal is to help boost FSU into the league of UF and other major universities that already are members of the prestigious AAU – the finest research universities in America.

In the span of five days the Governor has gone from being scorned by the press to being recognized that he will always adhere to his principles but, if possible, will suggest a remedy if there is a way to overcome his objection.  This is exactly the way we should all expect all of our Governors to act and this Governor with his uber- Chief of Staff David McNamara has pulled the rabbit out of the hat that will set this up for a victory in next year’s legislative session.

I believe in what the Governor is trying to achieve and both our PreK-14 and higher education system is ripe for continued reform.  It’s less really about the amount of money than it is about how we spend the money we have but you’ll never convince the left and the press that is so.  Failing public schools must endure competition if they are to become better otherwise they will continue to wallow in mediocrity simply to make the teacher union happy and keep poor performing teachers employed.  Speaker of the House Dean Cannon said as much in his opening remarks to the Joint Session this past January.

Too many of our next generation of children are only getting a modicum of what they need in reading and writing skills.  As a result our higher education system has to “pay” $172 million dollars a year to “remediate” high schools students who are not yet up to par to perform in college.  Yes, that’s how much we spend every year for failed-to-be-ready-to-compete high school graduates.  If there isn’t a bigger admission of institutional failure in our educational system, I’m not sure what it will take to convince you.

Our higher education system while good is not very, very good and so the key question for the future is are we going to help produce the skilled workforce needed for the future?  While we have America’s first high-technology industry right here in our state – the Space Program – and Florida has smartly been investing strategically in and around Kennedy Space Center.  Along with aerospace, we have still emerging bio-life; bio-medicine and bio-science industry clusters growing that will be synergistic with a top-notch skilled workforce.  And, Orlando especially has become home to many small but cutting-edge computer simulation companies doing work for the military since all four branches have their simulation commands at the UCF Research Park.  And across town in Winter Park, Electronic Arts, the giant in the gaming business, is growing its operations in a race for supremacy in high technology.

Yet, our State University System (SUS) needs to be producing more of these STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates that can then feed into these cutting-edge jobs than what we are doing now.  Thus, the initiative this past session to allow differential funding for FSU-UF based on certain criteria being met which only they could meet. The Governor, opposed to tuition hikes in principle, vetoed the bill.

Tuition hikes are always controversial which is why it’s the third rail of education in Florida and it rightfully revolves around access versus quality.  But have you seen what kind of cars college students are driving these days?  Most don’t work but go to school full time.  They don’t even take 18 per semester credit hours like I did when I was in college because federal grants only pay for 12 hours of study.  So with higher education becoming more expensive by the year why do we still cling to four years when we should be getting them out in three?  In the end though, if the college grads don’t have the skills that employers of the future will need then few will become employed here.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force will have its collective hands full trying to wade through the education battlefield of turf-defense.  Nevertheless, it must have strong and defensible recommendations that will serve our state well if we are to continue the much-needed education reform that will produce the outcomes we all say we need.

Barney Bishop III, who just founded his third company – Barney Bishop Consulting, LLC, is an outspoken, lifelong Democrat with a strong fiscally conservative streak. He is the former President & CEO of Associated Industries of Florida and he believes that government is not the answer to all of our problems, that civil discourse is obligatory, that compromising on details will not undercut one’s core beliefs, and that a resilient, robust private sector is the elixir needed for a true democracy to grow and survive. You can contact him at barney@barneybishop.com .

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