Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran criticizes the national media. Credit: screenshot from the Florida Channel
About 35 years ago, Betty Castor campaigned statewide to be Florida’s Education Commissioner, convincing the majority of Floridians that she could take on the responsibility of overseeing the state’s massive school system.
Castor won, and she served as Education Commissioner from the late 1980s to the early 1990s.
Since then, the election process that allowed Castor to serve is long gone.
The Education Commissioner no longer holds a position on the Florida Cabinet, and voters no longer see Education Commissioner on the ballot, due to a constitutional amendment change in the early 2000s. Currently, Richard Corcoran is an appointed Education Commissioner.
Now, a handful of Florida lawmakers are pushing to reinstate the commissioner’s status as an elected position, and support new legislation for the upcoming 2022 legislative session to give Floridians the opportunity to vote for the Education Commissioner.
“Elections are important,” said Castor, a seasoned and accomplished political figure who joined lawmakers at a press conference Thursday. “During my tenure, I had often met with teachers throughout Florida, and became a strong advocate for improving teacher salaries. They knew where I stood. And they were going to vote for me for that reason and others.”
Castor would speak with parents, teachers and the business community, and advocate in the Florida Legislature to push for education policies. And she became the first woman elected to a state cabinet post in Florida.
“These are all important positions,” Castor said, “however, I believe that education should also rank as an essential statewide service.”
The issue related to an elected or appointed Education Commissioner comes as Florida’s education system has been in a swirl of lawsuits and executive orders and controversies over mask mandates. The Department of Education is sitting on billions of federal dollars intended for COVID-related relief for schools. And education officials have docked the pay for some local school boards because of their strict mask policies.
And those are just some of the challenges in a state that has to navigate 67 school districts, more than 3,600 schools and 2.8 million Florida students. The Education Commissioner job is a complex role encompassing school finance, education policy, academic standards, and diverse constituencies ranging from teacher unions to charter school advocates to the Florida PTA.
As to the mask debate in Florida, Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart, who represents part of Hillsborough County, said at the press conference:
“I think it is a very, very sad day, when you have a commissioner who says ‘I will take away your ability to earn a paycheck because you’re trying to do what’s right.’”
Corcoran is an attorney, a former House Speaker and a Republican. He was recommended by Gov. Ron DeSantis and approved by the State Board of Education. Teacher union officials preferred a commissioner with an education background.
According to 2020 data from the Colorado-based Education Commission of the States, most education commissioners, or those serving an equivalent position, are appointed by either the state’s Board of Education or the governor.
At the time when voters elected Florida’s Education Commissioner, Betty Castor was a Democrat and the late Doug Jamerson also was a Democrat. Frank Brogan was elected as a Republican, as was Tom Gallagher. And Charlie Crist was a Republican at the time that he served as Education Commissioner. He is now a Democrat. He was the last elected Education Commissioner, ending his term in 2003.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell filed a bill for the 2022 legislative session attempting to give Floridians the opportunity to elect the Education Commissioner. She is a Democrat who represents part of Hillsborough County.
“Floridians deserve the right to vote for who is leading our education system,” Driskell said at the Thursday press conference in Hillsborough County. “It’s time to let the people of Florida have a say in their child’s education by electing a champion of education to lead the way and to be able to hold them accountable at the ballot box.”
The new bill, HJR 77, would attempt to amend the Florida Constitution to include the Education Commissioner as a Florida Cabinet member to be duly elected by Floridians. If the legislation is approved by the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis, the measure would then be voted on by Florida voters, according to a communications staffer for Driskell.
Floridians would be able to vote for a state Education Commissioner beginning in 2026.
Sen. Janet Cruz, another Democratic representing Hillsborough, spoke at the news conference. She had earlier pushed for a similar measure which did not come to fruition.
“Voters currently have no direct influence on state education policy, and this bill seeks to put an end to that,” Cruz said at the press conference.
Cruz alluded to the mask controversy during the Thursday press conference.
“Locally elected education officials are having democratically decided policies overwritten by an unelected and unaccountable commissioner of education,” she said.
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