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Job No. 1: Education

During the six years that they ran the Okaloosa County school system, Don Gaetz and Frank Fuller engineered a dramatic overhaul of the 30,000-student district. FCAT scores and graduation rates rose, and the western Panhandle district became a model for other Florida school districts.

Nearly a decade later in Tallahassee, the two are back together — working on what Gaetz, the new Senate president, calls a “bold but very sensible” agenda of statewide educational reforms that they believe will improve students’ job prospects and boost the state’s economic competitiveness.

Their first step: Legislation passed last year that requires the creation of an “economic security report.” The first databases, unveiled last month, aggregate education, employment and wage data from community colleges and universities to show what types of degrees Florida students are earning, where they’re getting jobs and how much they are earning.

A prospective student will be able to look up, for example, Florida State University to see what percentage of students earning political science degrees have found jobs and what their average wages are.

Beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, state universities will be required to provide enrolled students with a list of the top 25% degrees — those with the highest full-time employment and highest average annual earnings — and the 10% of degrees with the lowest employment and earnings.

Gaetz believes the new tools will help students make better-informed choices about their post-secondary education and get the best value out of their education dollars. “I believe that giving parents and students access to real information about the relationships between higher education and jobs explodes a myth in our culture — that if you get a four-year college degree, you’ll get a job, a home with a white picket fence and 2½ kids, and the fact is that’s not true,” Gaetz says.

Such data are also useful to employers, who need to know whether universities and colleges are turning out enough graduates with the right skills.

Fuller, now Gaetz’s senior policy adviser on education, says he was stunned to learn that between 2001 and 2011, there was a 40% drop in the number of graduates at Florida universities in computer science and related fields, despite significant demand from the private sector. The discovery of this gap led Fuller to draft language into the education legislation that sets aside incentive money to start producing more graduates in computer science and other fields that are underrepresented.

“Florida is a hugely high-tech state,” he says. “What we said is we’ve got to make a fine adjustment. We can’t be a high-tech state and not begin meeting that demand.”

In the upcoming legislative session, Fuller and Gaetz are planning a “major push” to establish Florida’s presence in the IT world and make that a primary mission of education. “A big focus will be on trying to get technology into the school systems in an effective way, (that doesn’t mean) just buy everybody a device,” says Fuller.

One thing the two are looking at, Fuller says, is a sort of European-led certification initiative that promotes the digital literacy of students by providing certification in critical computer skills. Fuller says students in countries like Switzerland, Denmark, Germany and Hong Kong have been earning the certifications for years. He believes Florida could easily integrate such training into its middle school curriculum and better help the state compete globally.

“Kids shouldn’t come out of middle schools without basic IT tools, competencies. They should be able to word process. They should be able to use Excel spreadsheets. They should be able to do multiple presentations using sound, movement and graphic display as part of what they do,” says Fuller.

“We’re not trying to turn them into PowerPoint whizzes. We’re just saying you should be able to use Photoshop or do PowerPoint presentations. It’s very hard to compete if you’re still doing poster boards.”