After decades as a civic leader, Sen. Nan Rich of Weston was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2000 and to the Senate in 2004. The first woman ever to lead the Senate Democrats, she is term-limited this year and has announced plans to run for governor, saying she is frustrated with how state government is being run.
Before becoming a lawmaker, Rich served as national president of the National Council of Jewish Women. She chaired the Children’s Services Board of Broward County, the Broward County School Readiness Coalition and the Broward Health & Human Services Board. She is considered one of the most liberal voices in the Legislature and an advocate for children, the elderly, people with disabilities and the poor.
The News Service of Florida had five questions for Rich:
Q: Florida’s economy: right track or wrong track?
RICH: I’m very concerned about jobs and the economy. The current leadership, from the governor’s office on down, saw fit to pass a budget – and for the governor to sign it – that cut $300 million from our public universities. Now, if you truly want to create jobs in this state, the best way to do it is to have quality universities that provide opportunities where young people can learn, gain the skills for high-paying jobs and go out into the workforce.
But to cut your state universities, which are your economic engine, doesn’t make any sense. We continually pass incentive monies for small business and corporations, and now we have accountability measures that are showing that of three jobs that are promised, one job actually comes to fruition. So why are we relying on that? Education is really the foundation of how you create a vibrant economy.
Q: Why the low writing scores on the FCAT?
RICH: The Department of Education deserves the criticism that they’re getting for the FCAT writing test. This high-stakes testing is shown not to be productive for kids. It’s impacting very negatively the children, the teachers and the whole education community. We need to use those tests as diagnostic tools, not as the end-all, be-all to whether or not kids are achieving success in school.
More than two-thirds of the kids failed the test. Well, one of the reasons is there was no communication, and the Department of Education can’t even tell you why this happened. They got together with the testing company and came up with this, but they failed to communicate with the school districts, the teachers, the parents.
We have too much reliance on high-stakes testing, and we need to go back and think about what we are doing and how we can achieve the outcomes that we want. Children are not widgets. They don’t all learn the same.
Q: Why, after the public outcry over abuse and neglect at assisted living facilities, did no reform measure pass the Legislature?
RICH: The [Senate] bill was a strong piece of legislation, and we sent it on over to the House, and they did not take it up. It’s just really unfortunate, because the [Miami Herald] series [“Neglected to Death”] pointed out some horrendous situations and flaws in our current system and lack of accountability. It was something that should have happened this year, and to say it can happen next year – maybe it will, but what happens in the interim to the people who were affected by the fact that we were not able to pass legislation to protect them?
Q: Do you have a chance for governor against the interests that tend to oppose your bills?
RICH: You’ve always had special interests in politics, but right now money is really driving the system more than it ever has before. I’m a person who’d love to have public financing, so you wouldn’t have all the involvement of special interests in who gets elected. And really, what we need is a balance in terms of the Legislature. We don’t have that now. We’re hoping that redistricting will give us a better balance.
Right now it’s very unbalanced. And it enables a party that has such a majority – whether it’s Republicans and Democrats, it enables them to just do things because they can. And that’s not necessarily making good public policy. But if you actually had to sit down and talk to each other, because one party or another didn’t have such an overwhelming majority, I think that you would get better policy passed in the state, and it would be better for the people.
I can go back to certain things that happened this session where we were able to get a coalition of Democrats and Republicans working together to either pass or kill some very bad legislation.
Q: Early learning was another hot-button issue, but Gov. Scott vetoed the compromise bill to pursue rulemaking. Do you support that?
RICH: We were just ranked near the bottom of states that have programs – 35th out of 39 – and we should be Number One. We passed this – everyone was so excited when the voters said we want to have high-quality pre-kindergarten educational opportunities for four-year-olds. And we don’t have high quality. We put a lot of money into it, but we’re not getting the outcomes, and that’s what the study showed. We don’t have degreed teachers. We don’t have pre- and post-assessments. So you can’t know if you’re really doing a great job or not, and who the good providers are.
The pre- and post-assessments, I believe, have to be nationally recognized assessments that are evidence based. Not some state pre- and post-test that you can’t correlate to other tests around the nation and find out truly whether you are doing a good job.
Everybody wants to save money, and we want to make sure we have an efficient government, but the statewide test is something like $4.5 million and the national, evidence-based test is something like $1 million…It costs more and isn’t as good. We should be going with a nationally recognized pre- and post-assessment.