Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., speaking in the Senate Education Committee on Jan 18, 2021. Credit: screenshot/Florida Channel
Florida’s top education officials unanimously agreed to appoint Sen. Manny Diaz as the state’s next education commissioner, backing the recommendation made by Gov. Ron DeSantis last week.
Although the state Board of Education voted unanimously to appoint the Miami-Dade state senator to the post during a board of Education meeting Friday, he won’t take the helm until June 1.
Diaz will be the first Hispanic commissioner of education appointed in the state, according to a press release from the Department of Education.
“It is a great opportunity that I look forward to — having spent my entire career in education and really made it about kids and parents and families — and I am honored to be here today before you,” Diaz told the board members.
Diaz serves as a Republican senator for part of Miami-Dade County.
Incumbent Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is stepping down. His last day is May 1, according to the press release. The board appointed Senior Chancellor Jacob Oliva to serve as interim commissioner for the month of May.
Corcoran lacked traditional education credentials — he is a lawyer and former House speaker.
In contrast, Diaz has worked in various levels of Florida’s education system, according to his resume submitted for consideration by the board. During the mid to late 90s, Diaz taught high school social studies in Miami-Dade County schools and was an assistant baseball coach.
He served as an assistant principle at various public schools in the district and has been a chief operating officer for the private, non-profit Doral College in South Florida.
In his time in the Florida House and Senate, Diaz served on education committees and spearheaded significant education-focused legislation, some of which were controversial.
During a round of questions from board member, Vice Chair Ben Gibson asked Diaz how he plans to continue the board’s priorities of upholding “parental rights,” a talking point that puts the parents at the forefront of a child’s upbringing.
The board has invoked “parental rights” as a justification for some of its more controversial moves, such as opening brick-and-mortar schools early in the COVID-19 pandemic and forbidding school districts from requiring masks during the height of the delta-variant surge.
“I’ve said this before in the legislative process — we can’t be complacent. The best defense is to go on offense, and we should always be on offense. Looking to improve the lives of the students of this state. And you can’t rest on your laurels, things are constantly changing, especially in this day and age, and so I think we continue to be aggressive,” Diaz responded.
“Obviously, from a different posture, and hoping that I can rely on those relationships that I have in the Legislature to push forward policies that align with Gov. DeSantis’ agenda, and also with our leadership in the House and Senate, and I think we have some great people coming into leadership, and I look forward to having my foot on the pedal,” Diaz said. “I don’t know any other way to function.”
Board chair Tom Grady said that Diaz’s priorities are “very much in sync with those of this board.”
Praise for Diaz
Part of the meeting was dedicated to public testimony, with some of the state’s college administrators, education-focused associations, representatives from political organizations, and average citizens in support of Diaz’s appointment. No one spoke in opposition.
Former state Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat who serves as chief executive officer for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said Diaz is “exactly what we need in the state of Florida.”
“He is a man of integrity, he will listen to opposing views. He will always, always make the right decision for what is right for students,” Montford said. “He’s a good man, he is exactly what we need.”
Grady noted that the board has not received a single email in opposition of Diaz’s appointment, a stark contrast to Corcoran’s appointment a few years back.
But Diaz has backed some of the most contentious education bills in recent years.
He co-sponsored the Senate version of the recently signed legislation HB 7, entitled “Individual Freedom,” which prohibits certain conversations about race and gender in schools and workplaces.
Often called the “Stop ‘WOKE’ Act,” the new law allows parents to sue school districts, or employees to sue their workplaces, if they are subjected to trainings that espouse certain principles.
Such principles include: “An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”
He sponsored SB 7044, which makes drastic changes to the long-standing practice of granting tenure to university faculty, requiring a post-tenure review of university faculty members every five years.
He has also been a proponent of expanding school vouchers, which allow students to attend private schools on public dollars through “scholarships.” Vouchers have been a long-standing debate in the public education sphere.
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