Uproar over FL Education Commissioner: Critics push for a national search and a candidate with an education background

By: - December 13, 2018 7:00 am
Richard Corcoran (photo from Wikipedia)

Former House Speaker Richard Corcoran appointed Florida Education Commissioner

Governor-elect Ron DeSantis’s controversial pick for Florida Education Commissioner has sparked angry tweets, petitions and protests as critics call for a national search and a candidate with a background in education.

When the State Board of Education meets Monday to consider who should be appointed as Commissioner of Education, protesters may be there.

“Based on what I’ve seen, it is very unusual for a state not to go though some sort of national search,” said Kristen Amundson, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

But states have leeway to select an Education Commissioner, using assorted requirements, Amundson says. And not all commissioners or state school superintendents have education credentials, such as a backgrounds in classroom teaching or school administration.

Current Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has spent nearly 40 years in education, starting out as a classroom teacher. Likewise, former Commissioners Frank Brogan and John Winn, among others, had lengthy education backgrounds.

But other Florida Education Commissioners have been attorneys, politicians and businessmen, including Tom Gallagher and Charlie Crist.

DeSantis has recommended former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, 53, as Education Commissioner, to lead the nation’s third-largest K-12 school system. He’s an astute politician and attorney — he graduated from a small law school at Regent University, a private Christian university.

Corcoran has no formal education credentials, but in the Legislature, he championed nontraditional public charters operated by private groups and scholarship programs that allow public dollars for students to attend private schools.

Supporters, such as former Gov. Jeb Bush, have endorsed DeSantis’s choice for Education Commissioner.

But groups including the Florida Education Association and League of Women Voters of Florida oppose putting Corcoran in the position without a national search for the best candidate with education credentials.

Overall, the Florida Education Association has been highly critical of Corcoran.

In an email to the Florida Phoenix, FEA President Fedrick Ingram said: “Richard Corcoran is not the right candidate for the job. Time and again as House speaker, he demonstrated open hostility for public education —  starving public schools of funds, pushing for charter schools and privatization at the expense of our traditional neighborhood schools. Corcoran lacks experience in education. He’s a political insider.”

The FEA launched a letter-writing campaign online, asking supporters to block Corcoran for Education Commissioner. It’s website warns: “Florida’s students need a leader of our public education system who knows public schools, who understands how our students learn and the needs of education staff. They do not need a political insider or someone dedicated to using public tax dollars for private or for-profit education.

Tell State Board of Education members to conduct a national search to hire a highly qualified, highly credentialed education professional to be Florida’s education commissioner.”

Other critics have gone to Twitter to rally against Corcoran, asking educators and others to converge at the Capitol on Monday to demand a search for a new Commissioner.

League of Women Voters of Florida president Patricia Brigham last week wrote a letter to State Board of Education chair Marva Johnson and other board members, saying, “As members of the State Board of Education you not only have the opportunity, but a constitutional responsibility, to conduct a national search to find the person who is best suited to oversee Florida’s system of public education.”

The letter also reminds the board that it has the responsibility to pick the new Education Commissioner— not the governor.

That said, key people on the State Board of Education are intermingled with Governor-elect Ron DeSantis, who set up a transition team to advise him on education matters.

The co-chair of DeSantis’s  education transition team is Marva Johnson – who is also the State Board of Education chair.  Also on DeSantis’s education transition team is Andy Tuck, the vice chairman of the State Board of Education.

Neither Johnson nor Tuck responded to questions from the Florida Phoenix. DeSantis’s  education transition team meets Thursday at Florida State University – a few days before the Monday meeting at the State Board of Education.

Amundson, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said it is important to keep in mind that the Commissioner of Education has a tough job – most commissioners have a tenure of two to three years.

And whoever is chosen for Education Commissioner will need some top-notch deputies and administrators.

“Somebody has to make sure that the special education money gets applied, accounted for and distributed. Somebody has to make sure the state test results get back as soon as possible,” Amundsen said. “Some of that stuff is just hard, and it involves a real knowledge of how the process works.”


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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.