Republican Joe Negron was sworn in as the new President of the Florida Senate last month and he recently laid out his priorities for education in the state. That includes more money for higher education and boosting the reputation of Florida's universities.
"When you look around the country and you see vibrant economies you almost always see a strong university presence," he said. "I think we have a chance over the next two years to move to the next level."
Currently, there is only one Florida school in the prestigious 62- member Association of American Universities - the University of Florida in Gainesville.
"My goal is that we would have several universities over time that would qualify," Negron said. "I've laid out a plan giving our universities the ability to recruit and retain the best faculty. That's one of the big criteria that that are looked at by organizations like AAU."
"Secondly, there's a lot of deferred maintenance and aging infrastructure on our college campuses that should be addressed. And thirdly, I think it's important that our universities fulfill what I believe is a key part of their mission which is that students from any background will be given the opportunity to advance their academic goals and their professional goals."
Negron gave an example of one such student from his own district in Stuart.
"A young woman from a family of modest means is a freshman at the University of Central Florida in electrical engineering," he said. "She has an internship this summer that pays $800 a week for a nationally recognized company. And that scenario is replicated literally thousands of times all over university campuses throughout Florida. That's why it's one of the passions that I have to get our universities to the next level."
Negron's counterpart in the House, Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, has said he thinks it's a good idea to fund higher education. But added that he is more concerned about the budget for the state's public K-12 schools. Even so, Negron said Florida should be able to accomplish both goals.
"I think it’s a matter of having an intensive budget review process and freeing up funds based on current needs rather than past obligations," Negron said.
Negron also addressed school choice. He's been a strong advocate of voucher programs like Florida Tax Credit scholarship.
“I believe the parent is in the best position to make an informed decision on what educational setting is best for their children," he said. "The traditional way we determine where students go to school is where you are zone based on where you live and I'm meeting more and more parents that want their students to attend school near where they work. The whole way we select where students are going to go to school is becoming outdated.”
Negron also discussed the growing "Opt-Out" movement, where parents are choosing to not have their children take standardized tests. Negron said he believes mandated tests are an important way to gauge student success.
"If you don't measure, you don't care," he said. "I certainly respect the right of parents to be the primary educators and how that relates with testing. But I think there should be accountability and mechanisms in place when we're using public funds to make sure that students are getting a high quality education. I think that's one of the important issues that we'll talk about this session.”