Can’t Legislate Everything

For the sake of argument, let’s make a few assumptions.

Let’s assume that a sizable enough chunk of Florida’s $2.2 billion surplus goes toward permanent funding aimed at making our kids safer from the state’s 5,000 sexual predators. Measures taken would include more probation officers and a sophisticated system of monitoring those would-be threats to our communities and neighborhoods. That includes information sharing among probation personnel, police and judges.

Let’s assume that the Legislature – in the aftermath of recent tragedies, national notoriety and lots of tough talk — acts appropriately tough.

That means fast-tracking bills that would impose significantly harsher sentences and global positioning satellite surveillance of all those on probation or any kind of community control. Lifetime supervision would certainly be in the mix – as would a stricter definition for who qualifies for probation in the first place.

And nothing – from castration to town square pillories — should be ruled out. Moreover, serious slammer time should await those who harbor either a registered sex offender (29,000 in Florida) or predator.

Let’s assume that Attorney General Charlie Crist maintains his high profile bully pulpit on the issue of probation abuse and stays on the Fox News circuit with O’Reilly and Geraldo. And let’s also assume he persuades the Legislature to pass the “Anti-Murder Act” and keeps those op-ed pieces coming so society doesn’t let down its collective guard.

But there’s one critical variable unaccounted for. And it has nothing to do with budgets or political process or civil liberties.

Arguably, none of these get-tough measures would have prevented the murder of Ruskin’s Sarah Michelle Lunde by registered sexual offender David Lee Onstott, a life-long loser and convicted rapist. Nothing can legislate parental responsibility.

The reason that 13-year-old Sarah was proximate enough to Onstott to be endangered was that he was familiar with her family. He used to date her mother. Repeat DATE her mother. There are no mandates that insulate kids against that sort of egregious judgment.

And it wasn’t a particularly prudent move for the mother to leave Sarah and her teen-aged brother alone while she was out of town. The 17-year-old was hanging out with buddies when the post-midnight strangling occurred.

For the sake of argument, it wouldn’t have taken much – certainly well shy of tough, new sex-offender and predator laws – to have ensured that Sarah Lunde was still among the living.

Academic Soapbox Invites McCarthyism

“Academic freedom” is one of those terms – not unlike “freedom fighter” or “student-athlete” — that requires some fine-print scrutiny.

Presumably no one is against “academic freedom” – at least until we introduce the repugnant likes of a Ward Churchill broaching an especially controversial subject in a particularly polarizing, patently disgusting way. But that’s classic First Amendment ambit for you.

Now here in Florida, which seems to be in the societal vanguard in so many notorious ways, we have our own “academic freedom” hot button issue. And this time it has nothing to do with Sami Al-Arrogant. Specifically, it’s State Rep. Dennis Baxley’s “academic freedom” bill, one aimed at monitoring faculty to ensure they deliver a “fair and balanced” curriculum.

HB 837 would give students in public colleges and universities the right to object if professors repeatedly discuss controversial issues irrelevant to a given class. They would also have the right to be taught and graded sans political bias.

(If nothing else, it speaks volumes that such rights are thought to need codifying.)

The grand-standing Baxley is an acolyte of conservative activist David Horowitz, the crusader against higher education’s liberal group think. Horowitz, of course, has a case. The academy is what it is — unless you’re talking Naval, Military and Air Force.

Horowitz, however, is not content to point out the obvious – including sham definitions of “diversity” on university campuses – and encourage appropriate responses to legitimate complaints on a case-by-case basis. His support of the Ocala Republican’s bill, including a presentation to a Florida House education committee, is overkill. The bill is subjectively unwieldy and likely unconstitutional. It has all the earmarks of a free-speech nightmare.

It’s also counterproductive.

Witness the she-said, he-said press conference the other day that was more classic McCarthyism than “totalitarian niche” microcosm. That media circus presaged nothing but witch hunts for proselytizing professors. Moreover, no one needs the Florida Legislature meddling where it has already proven its heavy-handed ineptitude.

Perhaps more than anything, the ideological dynamic of American universities needs to be kept in perspective. We don’t need any more surveys telling us what is manifestly evident: Universities are bastions of political correctness. And that’s not about to change.

The reality, however, is that inexperienced, impressionable students move on, mature and relate to the world as they find it.

The professors stay in school.

Martinez Continues His Pandering Ways

Just when we thought it might be safe to cut Mel Martinez some slack over his pandering-dominated campaigns, doesn’t the rookie senator just go and up the ante again.

Recall that the Florida Republican had tacked hard to the right on gays as Bill McCollum found out in the primary. Then Sami Al-Arian became a blunt political instrument with which to hammer Betty Castor for being “soft” on terrorism. And for good measure, Martinez did his White House master’s bidding by turning on his own people to back the president’s tougher economic-and-visitation restrictions against Cubans.

Now he is among those who couldn’t withstand the self-serving temptation to directly meddle in the agonizing, emotional tinder box that is the Terri Schiavo case. He helped turn her end-of-life tragedy into theater of the absurd as the Senate Health Committee “invited” Terri Schiavo and her husband Michael to come to Washington to “testify.”

Mercifully, the only resultant testimony was the self-evident sort that accurately portrayed Martinez as the ever-expedient, pandering politician that he is.

Historic Ignorance Imperils America

Do we have to include history – the world’s as well as our own – on the FCATs in order for it to become the curricular priority it should be? What we don’t know about our own country and how we relate – or don’t – to the rest of the world is already costing us dearly.

How many more polls — showing that college students rank John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan above George Washington – will it take? How many more map-mesmerized high schoolers not being able to find Georgia? Either one.

Numbers game

Nobody, notably including Gov. Jeb Bush, knows what it will ultimately cost Florida to fund the class-size reduction amendment passed by voters in 2002. The estimates absurdly range from $10 billion to $28 billion by 2010.

But here are some numbers with a lot more credibility.

For the 2005-06 school year, Hillsborough schools are looking at a projected deficit of $8.8 million. In addition, the district is scrambling to find a way to pay for about $20 million in employee raises.

But there is $41 million set aside for class-size reduction.

Gator Grad Upgrade?

In his brief Gainesville appearance last week, new University of Florida head football coach Urban Meyer made the rounds and made the right, positive impressions. He spoke glowingly about the “flagship” university that is UF, and how much he’s admired its nationally prominent football program. He said he considers the Gators to be the “premier” job in the country, and he welcomes the high expectations of Gator Nation.

He also reiterated his mantra: “Go to class, live right or don’t play.” By all accounts, it’s not an Urban myth.

If graduation rates are a barometer – and a priority — Meyer will have some upgrading to do at Florida. UF didn’t fare particularly well in a recently-released study by the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports that shows the graduation rates – both overall and black — of the 56 bowl-bound teams. Florida finished 44th – sporting an overall graduation rate of 42 percent and a black graduation rate of 36 percent. This is also part of Steve Spurrier’s legacy.

As for Utah, Meyer’s old school, the Utes were 46th. Since Meyer was only there two years, the figures are no reflection on his tenure. The overall Utah rate was 41 percent; the black rate 31 percent.

It all underscores the immense challenge that even consummate disciplinarians such as Meyer face. “Student athlete” is too often an oxymoron. Gator graduation rates are unacceptable. And “going to class” is obviously not an end in itself.

Let the Urban renewal begin – on and off the field.

Scripps Scenarios and Florida’s Future

It’s too premature, of course, to tell how the Scripps Research Institute’s plans for Palm Beach County will play out. Ground breaking for a 364,000-square-foot biomedical research facility on the eastern fringe of the Everglades has already been postponed once. The issues are the sensitive environment, per se, and the prospect of sprawl that would violate – indeed, mock — the county’s comprehensive, growth-management plan. Two lawsuits have already been filed in state circuit court in West Palm Beach.

Call it contentious right now between the county and Scripps, but don’t call it off.

Three things.

First, it’s critical that the Scripps’ facility, with all its economic and scientific implications, remain in Florida. Other states — with better biotech track records and still smarting that Scripps chose Florida – will not need much encouragement to transition into predator mode.

When Gov. Jeb Bush made his legacy-like announcement last year, he heralded a biotech bonanza of 6,500 jobs over 15 years worth more than $3 billion. This is, of course, critical to Sunshine State aspirations of a more diversified, 21st century economy.

Second, Hillsborough County is absolutely doing what it should by formulating a contingency Scripps plan and offer with new County Commissioner Mark Sharpe as point man. If Palm Beach thinks this is in “poor taste,” so be it. But should Palm Beach have to bail, Hillsborough must be well-positioned because, quite candidly, no place in the state can better accommodate Scripps’disparate amenity needs than Hillsborough County, Tampa and the Bay Area.

Third, Tampa deserved more than a token shot at competing for Scripps from the get-go. And local officials remember well all the help Jeb Bush WASN’T when it came to going the extra mile for Tampa when this city was in the serious hunt for the 2004 GOP convention.

The governor, frankly, owes us if Palm Beach can’t work. More to the point, he owes it to the state.

Martinez Sold Soul For The Senate

It’s an axiom as old as politics itself: Once elections are history, the losers get over it and unite behind the winners for the common good. That said, you have to believe it was especially challenging for Betty Castor to take one for Team Florida. But she did – by not challenging the senate-race results and further fracturing an already polarized process. So what if her concession smile masked gritted teeth.

Senator-elect Mel Martinez prostituted his “American Dream,” Pedro Pan immigrant story to cut a Faustian deal with the Bush Administration. He did whatever he was told: basically, no more Mr. Nice Guy. The overriding message: Win at all costs. Play every card – from the Sami Al-Arian, soft-on-terrorism ploy to an unethically edited outtake from a debate.

It worked – barely – and resulted in the most contentious senatorial campaign ever run in Florida. It wasn’t, as political euphemisms sometimes term it, “spirited.” It was certifiably sleazy.

It was also the likely last hurrah for Castor as a political candidate. But she lost with her dignity intact – something Martinez never approached in victory.