TALLAHASSEE — Last week, former University of South Florida President Betty Castor was elected vice-chair of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. It’s the latest post in her storied career, which includes serving as Florida’s education commissioner, the first woman elected to a Cabinet-level post in state history, from 1987 to 1994. Before that, she served three terms as a state senator and one as a Hillsborough County commissioner. In 2004, Castor was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Bob Graham, losing narrowly to Mel Martinez.
Castor is still deeply involved with USF. She is married to former lawmaker and lobbyist Sam Bell, who is also involved with the university and with whom Castor runs a foundation supporting schools in East Africa, where she began her teaching career.
She has three children: U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., state Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, and Judge Frank Castor of the 15th Judicial Circuit.
The News Service of Florida posed five questions to Castor:
Q: American education has changed tremendously since you were a young teacher. What changes alarm you the most, and what are the remedies?
Answer: Well, I have several concerns when it comes to our public K-12 system.
Right at the top, I’m concerned that we are not emphasizing enough the importance of recruiting excellent young people to go into the profession. It’s a difficult profession for existing teachers. There are not many rewards there. There’s a tremendous regulatory environment in our public schools… And, of course, I have my expert daughter, Karen, who is a teacher that I hear from, although she’s not teaching now.
It’s a tough environment. There’s a lot of discussion of how much legislators at all levels want to help the teaching profession, but I don’t see the evidence of it. We had one of the best programs, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Most counties in Florida were participating. The Legislature actually eliminated funding for that program. I thought that was very disappointing.
And now, if you look at the countries that do the best in terms of education generally — for example, Finland is number one in student achievement. Japan is another. Just one simple example: They require master’s degrees of their teachers. The Florida Legislature, last year, has now de-emphasized the whole area of additional degrees. There’s no reward. There’s no financial incentive for new teachers to get a master’s degree or go beyond. None! So if you’re a new teacher coming into the Florida education system, there’s no encouragement for you to go beyond your B.A. degree. That to me is astounding.
Now, my number-two worry is the enormous priority on high-stakes testing. That’s not to say accountability isn’t important. It is. We learn from it. … On the other hand, it seems like we’ve built a tremendous program and a tremendous environment around high-stakes testing. Again, I rely on what I hear from teachers. We grade schools, we reward schools that we know are going to do well because of their students, and we punish the others. I don’t think that’s a good system.
And now we have a very flawed evaluation system for teachers again, where they’re being tested on subjects they don’t necessarily teach and students they don’t necessarily teach.
Q: Are charter schools on your radar at all?
Answer: They are. Because I think there are some charter schools that are performing well. But we made it pretty easy in the beginning for people to start these charters. The Legislature has ironed out some of the, I think, worst abuses on the financial front and the conflict-of-interest front. But there are still a lot of requests for charters and not much overall evidence that they are superior to public schools.
I think it’s a good idea to relax some of the regulations, but if that’s working in charters, why aren’t we doing it in public schools? Right now the League of Women Voters is doing, I think, one of the most positive assessments of charter schools. They’re looking at regulations, they’re talking with educators, and they’re going to be making some recommendations.
My concern is whether or not, if we continue at the rate that we are, whether there will be a division of bright students in charters and the challenging students in the public schools. I think we need to take a step back and have some real third-party, independent evaluations of what is happening with the charter movement and the funding. What happens with a charter, oftentimes, is they start with good people who recognize a need and then they transfer their charter to for-profit groups. And I think we need to think about whether — in public education, where we have to serve the broadest number of students — whether this is a good policy or not.
Everything that’s going on is not a great concern in a negative way. I think Common Core is a good initiative.
Q: If you were education commissioner now, how would you deal with Common Core?
Answer: I think that Common Core is really good, and I hope that the governor and the commissioner of education will not dramatically change the course that we’re on.
Now, having said that, now that we’re implementing Common Core, I think it will take a few years to do it, because teachers need time. And before we rush off and start testing everybody on the new Common Core, I think we ought to hit the pause button.
I’m not the first to suggest that, of course. A number of people have said before we spend an enormous amount on a new and costly, costly, system of evaluating every course, let’s stand back and give our teachers a few years to really get into the Common Core, perhaps look at assessments in English or math, but do it in a practical way where we can roll these assessments out and we don’t super-impose some far-reaching testing requirements that end up where the FCAT did.
As you know, when the FCAT scores come in, they get modified. And you wonder, at the end of the day, whether we have a very good understanding of how schools are performing.
Q: Both your daughters are in high-pressure roles in the world of lawmaking. Does that concern you, that they’re in the arena?
Answer: No. They both love public policy. And even though there’s a nastiness associated with public service and partisanship, they’re both passionate about what they’re doing. So that’s good, to want to be involved. I wish more people felt as concerned as they do about service. I’m very proud of both of them.
Kathy is now in her fourth term — it’s hard for her mother to believe that. But she’s on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She was outspoken at the time of the BP oil spill. She was right in there, trying to get reparations and assessments of the damage. She’s now working on diversified energy proposals. She has kind of carved out economic development, and her district includes the port, the airport and hospitals, so she’s been involved with subjects such as electronic medical records. All of that is positive.
I think with Kathy — and with Karen, too — there’s a positive reaction that you receive when you have a microphone and can talk about issues that concern you. Karen was kind of an instant expert in the House because of her real-time classroom experience. When people talked about teacher evaluations, she could hold her hand up and say, “Wait a minute — that’s not the way it works.” She was amazed, frankly, at how much discussion of education there was with how little knowledge people had.
(Is that something that amazed you when you were in the Legislature?)
Well, sure, in a way. But I’ll tell you, with education, it has become such a high-stakes arena. You just have to look at the people who are lobbying the education committee now to know that it’s not the same kind of education lobbyist that I had when I was there. At the time I was there, it was mostly school-board members and superintendents, but now there are a lot of third-party charter and for-profit folks. And then, legislators work for these agencies, so I think it creates some interesting conflicts.
But getting back to my daughters, they are both so excited. …The number of women makes a difference, and Kathy and Karen are both mothers, they both have kids, they both have husbands, and so I think their families make them — they don’t let it get away from them. They don’t get such big heads, because they have to keep their house in order. Your kids kind of bring you down to earth. They both are very good mothers and family members as well. And that takes balance. My son Frank is also in the public arena. He’s a judge in Palm Beach County. It’s the same when I have to stand up and say, “Your Honor.” (Laughs.)
I just hate to see the nastiness of the public arena. I think, unfortunately, money in campaigns has done a lot to cause that.
Q: Is America ready for a woman president in 2016? Or just ready for Hillary?
Answer: I think they’re ready for more women in higher offices.
For president, of course, that’s the highest stakes of all, but you look at who would be likely candidates for that office. The most likely places are women who have served in the Cabinet or the Senate or somebody who comes out of business. Well, there aren’t enough women yet at that business level. There are governors. But when you have 20 women in the Senate, I think that’s an indication that there’s a growing — and a much more positive than negative factor regarding gender and women.
Now, it’s unbelievable. There are — I just checked — 78 women in the (U.S.) House. I went up with Kathy for the beginning of the session last year. They called all the women to the steps of the Capitol for a picture, and I said, “Oh, my God.” They kept coming! That’s outstanding. And if you think about just the women who have served as secretary of state — I don’t think Madeleine Albright’s going to be interested in running for president, but Condoleezza Rice is certainly somebody who is very qualified for that office. And then there’s Hillary, and she is the most qualified of all. She’s served in the Senate, she served in the Cabinet. And just this morning, we have Janet Yellen, who’s going to be the chair of the Federal Reserve, the once-bastion of male leadership.
So, putting it in context, yes, the country is ready for a woman. I think they’re more ready than they ever have been, and it’s just a confluence of factors that Hillary’s there.
(If she runs, will you be working for her election?) Yes, absolutely. I’ve already told her that.