Note to readers: Opinion Page Editor Jim Sutton is enjoying a scheduled vacation this week. In his absence, The Record will feature editorials from newspapers around the state and nation. The following editorial first appeared this week in the Sun Sentinel.
Richard Corcoran for state education commissioner? Sure. Why not make Tallahassee's hostility to public education even more apparent?
Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis said Thursday that he wants the former House speaker to succeed Pam Stewart, who resigned Tuesday because of "recent election results and announcements." She meant the rumors that DeSantis wants someone else.
It's not clear, however, if the Board of Education agrees that Corcoran should take over. The seven-member board actually hires the commissioner. The board has scheduled a meeting by conference call for Dec. 17, though no agenda has been made public.
In practical terms, the board might as well hire Corcoran. The governor appoints the board. Voters changed the Florida Constitution to abolish the elected commissioner and acknowledge that the governor and Legislature create education policy.
And DeSantis has made clear that his priority is not traditional public schools, even though they educate 90 percent of students in the public system. During his campaign, he didn't visit public schools. He visited a private Jewish school and touted corporate tax vouchers. A Wall Street Journal analysis concluded that DeSantis' support for vouchers pulled enough African-American voters from Andrew Gillum to tip the election.
In Corcoran, DeSantis has an education soulmate. Last year, Corcoran leveraged his power as speaker to push through legislation that for the first time gave charter schools — which use public money but may be privately operated — some of the property tax revenue that school districts use for construction and maintenance. When Florida allowed charter schools in the mid-1990s, operators said they never would need such money.
House Bill 7069, which legislators hardly got to read, did much more. It gave charter companies $200 million to build "schools of hope" near low-performing public schools but with no guarantee that the charters would take all the students. The bill made it harder for school districts to use federal money designed to help those same struggling students.
Former Palm Beach County Superintendent Robert Avossa called Corcoran's creation "the single largest piece of legislation to dismantle public education that I've ever seen." True, but HB 7069 simply extended the attack on public education by Republicans since they took control in Tallahassee two decades ago.
There's precedent for gubernatorial strong-arming. Through the board, Charlie Crist ran off former Jeb Bush acolyte John Winn, though he came back later as interim commissioner. Rick Scott then ran off Eric Smith.
The bar also isn't high. The first appointed commissioner, Jim Horne, quit to campaign for the gambling amendment that allowed slot machines in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties. He now lobbies for charter schools.
More recently, one commissioner lasted just one year after botching the rollout of a new school grading system. Another resigned after reports that, as Indiana's education commissioner, he ordered the charter school run by a donor to get an A grade rather than the C it deserved. The man had lost his bid for reelection, so Florida was getting him on the rebound anyway.
Corcoran fits the mold of other so-called "school choice" Republicans by seeing no conflict when his policies align with personal interests. In 2016, about to become speaker, Corcoran favored legislation that allowed charters easier access to construction money. At the time, a charter school that Corcoran's wife founded wanted to expand. The bill made it easier.
Under Republican rule, the Legislature has shrunk almost every source of money for traditional public schools.
Though high-quality public education can drive a state's economy, one can assume that DeSantis and the House will continue these misguided, ideological policies. They also could try to end any remaining local control of charter schools. They could try to make the unaccountable corporate voucher program available to families well above the middle class, even though the vouchers ostensibly are to benefit poor students.
We draw this conclusion because the new leader of the House Education Committee is Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora. She was home-schooled. According to a report in the Orlando Sentinel, she may lack a college degree as she helps to craft policy on universities.
But she does have the required GOP attitude: "There is something to be said for someone who has not been subjected to good teachers or bad teachers, good schools and bad schools, or unions vs. charters. My perspective is a unique one, and one that lends itself to being more concerned with what works than with who benefits."
One fan predicts that Corcoran would be Florida's "most disruptive" education commissioner. We've had disruption for 20 years. A real reformer would try to improve the system without tearing it down.