Dumbing down Florida education

December 21, 2018 7:00 am

Florida archives photo

Florida Republicans have once again demonstrated their contempt for education by making former House Speaker Richard Corcoran Commissioner of Education. It’s not merely that he’s grossly unqualified, he’s hell bent on wrecking our public schools.

Just as Donald Trump has no experience telling the truth, Corcoran has no experience in education – unlike former commissioner Pam Stewart, who seems to have been unceremoniously shoved out by the incoming Ron DeSantis regime. Corcoran does (again like Trump) have lots of ill-informed, arrogantly-expressed opinions, once calling the teachers’ union “half-assed,” “repugnant,” and “evil” because they objected to the transfer of taxpayer money away from public schools to charter schools.

These “evil” public school teachers are so sunk in venality they spend an average of $750 of their own money on supplies for their classrooms because the local school board can’t afford to equip them properly and perversely continue to pursue their vocation in Florida, where salaries rank 42nd nationally–lower than Alabama; lower than Mississippi.

The solution to Florida’s overall mediocre education performance is, according to Corcoran, “school choice,” using public money to send kids to charter schools or private schools where that pesky church-state separation thing doesn’t apply, and the kids can learn (as happened in several Florida schools) that humans and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time. Successive Republican administrations since Jeb Bush handed tax cuts out like candy while decimating Florida’s education budget, starving public schools, then blaming them for lousy test results and declaring that throwing money at our education problems won’t fix anything.

Not that we’ve ever actually tried throwing money at Florida’s education problems. The state is currently 43rd in per-pupil spending–a solid $3,000 less than the national average.

To be fair, some studies suggest that some charter schools achieve higher test scores than public schools. Other studies show graduation rates below those of public schools. It’s certainly not clear that charters are the cure for Florida’s education woes. What’s abundantly clear is that Richard Corcoran is Betsy DeVos with a Y chromosome.

It’s both personal and political. During his legislative career, Corcoran seethed with hostility to modern, secular education. He pushed through a bill to allow charters called “Schools of Hope” to set up shop near troubled public schools. At the same time, the legislation made it harder for local districts to use federal funding to help kids in disadvantaged circumstances. He’s all for prayer in school (though it’ll be fun the first time a Muslim kid wants to offer a devotion from her or his tradition) and, of course he hates the Florida Education Association. Unions are so, you know, socialist.

 During his, er, “interview” to become Florida’s education chief, Corcoran was asked about his disdain for public education. He dismissed the question. So that’s all right, then. No doubt we should all ignore the inconvenient fact that his brother lobbies for a consortium of charter schools and his wife founded one charter school in Pasco County and has helped push through another in Leon County (over the objection of local education leaders, too).

Republicans seem blissfully untroubled by what we Little People might call a big, fat conflict of interest. The Legislature just doesn’t give a damn. Evidence?  Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, a home-schooled 29 year-old who claims to have some college credits from an Evangelical “university,” will be the new House Education Committee chair. Manny Diaz, who used to work for a charter school company, heads the state Senate Education Committee.

Florida’s new governor doesn’t care, either: two members of his so-called “education advisory committee” seem to be utter yelping idiots. They want Florida students shielded from such horrors as Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Angela’s Ashes, the novels of Toni Morrison, and, of course, science. With the likes of Richard Corcoran in charge, they may get their wish.


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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.