The elected vs. appointed debate: Is it time to go back to electing FL’s Education Commissioner?

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

Years ago, state officials from Betty Castor and Frank Brogan to Tom Gallagher and Charlie Crist had something in common: They went on the campaign trail and got elected by voters to oversee Florida’s massive education system.

But the elected Commissioner of Education post has been gone since 2003 because of Constitutional changes and it’s now an appointed position.

State Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, is looking to bring back the elected Education Commissioner.

She filed legislation Tuesday to launch a Constitutional ballot initiative in 2020 to allow voters to make the Education Commissioner an elected officer, starting with the statewide general election in 2022.

“Floridians deserve the right to vote for who is leading our education system” Cruz said in a press release. “Voters currently have no direct influence on state education policy and this resolution seeks to put an end to that.”

Now, Florida’s Education Commissioner is chosen by the State Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor. That has led to questions about how impartial or independent the person chosen to oversee Florida’s sprawling K-12 system is, according to Cruz, as well as concerns about a lack of accountability directly to the people.

“Going forward, we should remove politics and personal agendas from the selection process,” said Cruz. “The Commissioner of Education needs to be a champion of Florida’s traditional public education system.”

The reference to the “traditional” public education system usually is seen as a controversy over the rise of non-traditional schools in Florida, such as public charter schools run by private groups and private schools that can enroll certain students with public dollars.

New Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a former Republican House Speaker, is a champion for those non-traditional schools. He recently was appointed by the State Board of Education after a recommendation from then Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis.

The last elected Florida Education Commissioner was Charlie Crist, who later served as Florida’s governor and attorney general.

An analysis by the Education of Commission of the States, a Colorado-based nonprofit that tracks education policies across the country, shows that the vast majority of states appoint their top education chiefs. Only about a dozen are elected. Among those tallied nationally as of 2017: Arizona, California, Washington and Wisconsin.

In Indiana, the state has been electing its top education chief, but will switch to an appointed position after Jan. 10, 2025, according to the analysis.

Cruz’s proposed legislation is a Senate Joint Resolution that would amend Florida’s Constitution (if voters approve it) to allow for an elected Education Commissioner, who would become the fourth member of Florida’s Cabinet. In the past, the Education Commissioner was a Cabinet officer. Currently, only the Agriculture Commissioner, Attorney General and Chief Financial Officer are Cabinet members.

From June 1, 2021 through January 3, 2023, the Education Commissioner would remain an appointed position, made by the governor and subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate, according to the legislation. The Education Commissioner would be elected beginning with the 2022 statewide general election, and every four years after that.

 

 

 

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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