Betty Castor thinks it’s ironic that one of the arguments that was made for changing the education commissioner in Florida from an elected position to one appointed by the State Board of Education more than two decades ago was that there needed to be a “professional” educator in that role (that happened in 2003, following a 1998 constitutional amendment).
“I was an educator when I was Commissioner of Education and now we’ve had several commissioners since that time who were not what I would call “professional” educators but were politicians. And policy makers,” she said while speaking with Spectrum Bay News 9 from her Bayshore Boulevard condominium in South Tampa earlier this month. “So that argument just doesn’t hold water.”
The current Education Commissioner is Richard Corcoran, who had no previous experience in education but was the outgoing Speaker of the House when Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Board of Education selected him to lead the department back in 2019.
Castor has spent a career in public service, much of it focused on public education. She maintains that it’s better to have the person leading the state’s education department to get out and hear from the public before taking the office.
“When you have to go out as I did running for this office, you have to talk to teachers. You have to talk to parents. You have to allow them to have input into the system. I think today that it’s a closed system,” she says. “Even though we have elected school boards, the regulations today are set by Tallahassee.”
Castor, 79, is a pioneer in local politics. In 1972 she became the first woman ever elected to the Hillsborough County Commission, defeating 10 other opponents in a wild Democratic primary election. Recounting that campaign, one of the biggest issues she heard that year was what was going to happen to her children, aged 2, 4 and 6 at the time.
“Well, they turned out pretty well,” she quips.
Indeed they did.
Castor’s eldest daughter Kathy has represented Hillsborough County in Congress since 2006; Her daughter Karen (Castor Dental) is a former state representative who has served as a member of the Orange County School Board since 2018, and her son Frank has served as a judge in Palm Beach County since 2006.
Castor also remains as ardent an enthusiast in passing the Equal Rights Amendment as she did when she served in the Florida state Senate in 1977, when the measure came up two votes short of passage in that chamber.
“I think that women need to be mentioned prominently in the Constitution of this country,” she says. “There’s no doubt that women have made gains. We see it all around us, but we still can change any of those laws that are in effect. If women are in the Constitution as equal partners in this government that we have, then that can’t be changed. That’s a constitutional mandate. And I think it’s a message to all of the women—current women and young women and women coming along—yes, they are equal in the eyes of this country and in this Constitution.”
(Per the Constitution, the ERA needed to be ratified by 38 states back in the 1970s. It came up three states short, but in recent years Illinois, Virginia, and Nevada have ratified it. Last year Congress voted to remove the 1982 deadline, but questions remain if erasing the deadline is constitutional and that the states that ratified in the 70s can still be counted).
From 1994 to 1999, Castor served as the first woman president at USF in Tampa. Under her watch, the student body population expanded and the football program was implemented. But Castor says if she has a legacy from her tenure, she considers it her push to beautify the campus as a significant, and cites the planting of trees, berms and the building of the MLK Plaza in the center of the campus as part of that effort.
Other highlights include the construction of the College of Education, new student housing and the start of the physical therapy program.
In 2004, Castor won a contested Democratic primary race for U.S. Senate, defeating Broward County Congressman Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas. She then lost in an intense battle against Republican Mel Martinez by 1.1 percent in the general election.
In both contests, Castor’s handling of Sami Al-Arian became a hot political issue. Al-Arian was a professor at USF when Castor put him on paid leave in 1996 after a Palestinian think tank he founded was labeled a front for terrorists by the FBI. In 2003, he was indicted on charges of material support for terrorism. He was ultimately deported to Turkey in 2015.
“I think that you can take anyone’s career and pluck something out and use it,” Castor says when reflecting on the issue. “So I didn’t think that was fair.” In retrospect, she attributes her narrow loss to underperforming in traditional Democratic strongholds of Miami-Dade and Orange Counties.
A full year before his first term in office was over, Martinez surprised the Florida political world by announcing that he was resigning from his seat, saying simply that it was “time to return to Florida and my family.”
"Disappointing," is Castor's reaction to that.
“You’re in this race for well over a year. You’re working hard and you finally get there – it seems to me you should have figured out before you got into this contest that this might not be what you do,” she says.
But back to 2021. Castor remains active. She currently serves as the chair of the independent Citizen Oversight Committee which oversees the spending on the half-cent sales tax in the Hillsborough County School District.