An attorney/politician will lead Florida’s massive education system — and it won’t be easy

Richard Corcoran (photo from Wikipedia)
Former House Speaker Richard Corcoran appointed Florida Education Commissioner

Former House Speaker Richard Corcoran – a lawyer and astute politician with no education credentials – will be Florida’s new Education Commissioner, taking on 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.

He’ll be working on behalf of urban and rural schools, teachers, administrators and most of all kids who come from all backgrounds and circumstances but, as Corcoran says, can aspire to be “lovers of life-long learning.”

He’ll also face challenges in bringing students up to par. Despite some improvements in performance at the grade school level, most high school teens tested aren’t prepared for college-level work after graduation, based on data from the ACT and SAT college entrance exams.

And Corcoran will be held responsible for pushing through Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis’s education agenda, which includes a controversial expansion of scholarship programs for kids to attend private schools with public dollars.

Florida’s school system is the third-largest in the nation, with some 2.8-million K-12 students. And the Education Commissioner also oversees the system of state colleges, sometimes referred to as community colleges. (The state university system is separate.)

“He’s got some learning to do,” Florida Education Association president Fedrick Ingram said about Corcoran, who was approved unanimously Monday by the State Board of Education.

The union preferred a commissioner with an education background — current Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has spent nearly 40 years in education, starting out as a classroom teacher, though other past commissioners have not had education credentials.

The union and other advocacy groups also pushed for the state board to do a national search to pick the best candidate – which is the more typical route when it comes to choosing a statewide school superintendent or commissioner.

Instead, DeSantis recently recommended Corcoran for the job and the state board quickly went along, despite an uproar of angry tweets, petitions, postcards, letters and emails from opponents. At the same time, supporters, such as former Gov. Jeb Bush, endorsed DeSantis’s choice for Education Commissioner.

While he has no education credentials, Corcoran, 53, has been one of the most powerful House Speakers in decades and has represented influential Pasco County in the state Legislature. He is a Republican.

For the most part, he was a product of public schools. He attended elementary through high school public schools, public community colleges and the University of Florida, ultimately finishing his bachelor’s degree at Saint Leo College, a Catholic institution north of Tampa. It’s now Saint Leo University.

He went on to graduate from a small law school at Regent University, a private Christian university. He’s been a champion of nontraditional charter schools run by private groups, and scholarship programs that allow students to go to private schools using public dollars. His wife has been involved in founding and overseeing charter schools.

Given the controversial pick – and the lack of a national search — the State Board of Education first heard from its general counsel on Monday.

General Counsel Matthew Mears told the board that it has the responsibility to appoint a Commissioner of Education but there’s no particular process in law or the state Constitution to make the selection.

The process is at the discretion of the board, Mears said.

That means a national search wasn’t required, though that didn’t stop people who came to the meeting to express their views prior to the vote on Corcoran’s appointment. Those people were still calling upon the board to do a national search.

Several more people made comments, praising Corcoran and supporting his appointment.

Before voting, the state board asked Corcoran to come to the podium in the Capitol meeting room to talk about the job and then answer pointed questions from board members. The questioning lasted for more than an hour.

Board member Gary Chartrand called Corcoran a school choice advocate – meaning families can choose schools other than those in their neighborhoods. “What do you say to the critic that believes you’re taking money from the district and weakening traditional schools?”

“I reject the premise,” Corcoran said.

Still, Corcoran will be pressed to expand school choice options for parents, under DeSantis’s plans.

In fact, when board members asked what Corcoran will do as Education Commissioner in various areas, he usually said he would be following DeSantis’s plans.

While the board approved Corcoran’s appointment, the details still need to be worked out, including his salary. Current commissioner Stewart has been earning $276,000, according to state data. That’s  one of the highest salaries in the country for a state school superintendent.

At the end of the meeting, people in the audience Monday clapped when the state board approved Corcoran.

And following the meeting, Corcoran and FEA’s Ingram were cordial, speaking together about meeting and discussing various education issues. The union also invited Corcoran to visit some public schools.

But others were disappointed, including The League of Women Voters of Florida, which had urged the state board to do a national search. League president Patricia Brigham said in a press release:

“Even if the Board ultimately agreed with Governor-elect Ron DeSantis’s recommendation for the post of Commissioner of Education — which they clearly did — the Board still had a duty to the children and parents of Florida: To conduct a thorough search for qualified candidates from around the state and country, as they have done in the past.

Few things are as important as the education of our children. Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding this appointment do nothing to alleviate the concerns of everyday Floridians that this is simply, ‘politics as usual.’

All the same, we look forward to meeting and working with Commissioner Corcoran to work on public education policy that will benefit all Floridians.”

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.

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