Dr. Smith comes to Tallahassee
The state Board of Education just moments ago chose a former superintendent from out of state to lead Florida schools in the post-Jeb Bush era. The vote was unanimous, and it came less than 10 minutes after ending a second round of interviews with three finalists.
Eric J. Smith, 57, will be the first permanent commissioner since Bush ally John Winn resigned in February after a rocky, 30-month stint. He's a former schools superintendent in Charlotte, N.C. and Anne Arundel County, Md., and currently a senior vice president with the College Board. He began his career as a teacher and principal in Florida. (For more on his background, click here.)
Smith said he looks forward to joining Florida's education debate, no matter how polarized it might get.
"Wherever you have groups of individuals who are passionate about education, that's a preferred place to be rather than apathy," he told the Gradebook. "At least then we can have honest, substantive discussions."
Smith's charge is monumental. Florida's school system is massive, with 2.7 million students and 170,000 teachers. It's among the poorest and most racially diverse in the country. And its politics couldn't be more fractured. Many teachers dislike the test-heavy accountability system put into place by Bush, and both critics and supporters can find ammo in statistics that verge on schizophrenic. Florida's graduation rate, long one of the worst in the nation, continues to stagnate between 60 to 70 percent. But in the early grades, Florida students are making big gains in reading and math.
Smith's career has had its ups and downs. He was superintendent in Charlotte, N.C. in 2000 when the Council of Great City Schools named him educator of the year. But in 2005, he left the Anne Arundel system after rifts with teachers and school board members. At the time, he still had nine months left on a 4-year contract.
Monday's decision got a thumbs up from some key education players in Florida.
"I like the fact that he has real experience as the head of (several) different school systems," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, chair of the Senate education committee. "That will give him credibility with people who are on the front lines in education."
Gaetz also credited Smith's work at the College Board, where he focused on better preparing high school students for success in college. His work in that arena may dovetail with what many education observers see as Florida's next major area of focus.
Other observers hoped Smith's selection would mark a new era.
The state teachers union "takes Eric Smith at his word when during his interview for the job he stressed the need to involve teachers and other education professionals in making critical decisions about the future of public schools," Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, said in a written statement. "Too often in the past, that has not been the case."
The other candidates for the job were Cheri Yecke, Florida's K-12 chancellor, and Joseph Marinelli, a regional superintendent from upstate New York.
- Ron Matus, state education reporter