Byline: TIA MITCHELL
From the very beginning, the State Senate District 8 race between John Thrasher and Deborah Gianoulis has been largely about education.
Gianoulis was a retired TV anchor turned education advocate who said she was outraged that Thrasher, her state senator, was one of the most visible proponents of Senate Bill 6, a sweeping education reform bill that was blasted by teachers unions and parent groups.
Gianoulis felt Thrasher wasn't listening and was out of touch with voters in the district, which hugs the coast from Nassau County to northern Volusia County. So in late June she decided to make her first attempt at elected office, running in the Nov. 2 election as a Democrat against one of the most powerful Republicans, if not politicians, in recent state history.
To this day, Thrasher believes Senate Bill 6 - which would have tied part of a teacher's pay to student test scores - was the right thing to do. He said he listened to those who opposed the bill; he just didn't agree with them.
"There comes a time," he said, "when you just agree to disagree from a policy standpoint."
Gianoulis was serving as chairwoman of Save Duval Schools, a public education advocacy group, during the fight against Senate Bill 6. She said there were many stakeholders Thrasher ignored, which led to vocal opposition that eventually prompted Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the legislation.
"I feel you cannot exclude anybody that represents the profession of teaching when you want to talk about reforming their own profession," she said. "Reform comes from within; it cannot be imposed."
Education became a focus for Gianoulis throughout her nearly 30-year broadcast career, and she has produced three documentaries on the issue. After retirement from WJXT TV-4, she became a board member of the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership and Episcopal Children's Services.
She boasts that both of her children, now adults, attended public schools.
Thrasher grew up in Jacksonville and is a product of Duval County public schools. When critics say he unfairly vilifies teachers, he points out that his own daughter is a teacher, though not currently practicing in the classroom. Four of his eight grandchildren attend public schools.
Thrasher doesn't think teachers are the problem, per se. However, he does believe that teachers unions have stood in the way of reform.
And he is not planning to resuscitate Senate Bill 6 if he returns to the Legislature next year.
Thrasher said he has no specific education legislation in mind, but he believes the state should continue efforts to create rigorous standards for students, enhance teacher pay and encourage good teachers to work in low-performing schools.
He points to charter schools like KIPP Impact as a model, as well as the Teach for America program, which is known for tracking student achievement.
"Those are learning gains, and that's really what we ought to be rewarding our teachers for and having those resources building into their base pay," he said, "not a one-time incentive bonus."
Gianoulis believes the key to creating good teachers and keeping them in the classroom is being inclusive when coming up with reform efforts and allowing flexibility at the district level.
"A one-size fits-all mandate from Tallahassee is what I oppose," she said. "I think it's perfectly reasonable to have standards that each school district and each school works to meet in the way that is best for their children."
Both candidates do agree on at least one thing: That voters should approve Amendment 8 to relax requirements of the voter-approved Class Size Amendment. Gianoulis didn't come to the decision easily, and acknowledges that part of her base, mainly teachers unions, has taken the opposite position.
"I am going to land with the superintendents and the school boards," she said. …