Seven people remain in the hunt to become Florida's next education commissioner. Next week, the State Board of Education will trim the list further. Leading to that Sept. 18 meeting, the Gradebook will provide mini profiles, one each day, on the candidates. Today, meet Jim Warford.
Arguably, nobody on the short list for education commission has a resume as colorful and diverse as Jim Warford's, or a personal story as moving. A former musician and entertainer, Warford now heads the influential Florida Association of School Administrators. He says his mother was a 14-year-old, unwed, eighth grade dropout. He says he was the first in his family to graduate from high school. "Public school teachers, coaches and principals did more than just change my life," he writes in a letter he submitted as part of the search process. "They saved it."
Warford's rise in Florida's education circles has been rocket-like. In 1999, he was a high school teacher. In 2000, he was elected superintendent. In 2003, Jeb Bush and then-commish Jim Horne made him No. 2 at DOE (see story here). In 2005, he abruptly quit (see stories here and here). Six weeks later, he landed on his feet at FASA (see story here).
As superintendent, Warford embraced strong accountability policies, including a test-heavy instructional approach he imported from Texas called the Continuous Improvement Model (see Ocala Star-Banner stories, and an editorial about teacher views of CIM, here). As chancellor, he was a strong supporter of Jeb and the FCAT. "The answer isn't to do away with the test," he told an FCAT-bashing crowd in St. Pete in 2004. "The answer is to pass the test." (See story here.)
Since his departure from DOE, though, Warford has become one of the most widely quoted critics of Jeb's ed policies. He said former commisioner John Winn was "Jeb's Donald Rumsfeld." He said the FCAT was not being properly utilized. He said the Bush team approach was marked by "an arrogance, a hubris, a lack of collaboration, cooperation on every major issue." (See stories here.) In a column earlier this year, the editorial page editor of the Ocala Star-Banner even dubbed Warford "an anti-Bushie." Several newspapers, including the St. Pete Times , have cited him prominently in articles and editorials that raised questions about the Bush program (like this one). And the Palm Beach Post reported in this story in April that Warford appeared to be the best bet to replace Winn as commish.
For what it's worth, some Marion County parents aren't buying it. To see the e-mails they recently sent to Gov. Charlie Crist about Warford, click here. Warford responds: "I'm sorry those parents feel that way. Fortunately, I have many letters and e-mails of support from other parents, school board members, the current superintendent, and community leaders thanking me for the improvements we made during that time. But change is hard and not everyone will like it."
Warford says his priority as commissioner would be reforming Florida's middle and high schools, whose sluggish performance on the FCAT and other standardized tests has not matched heady progress in early grades. Warford may have beefed up his reform credentials in that arena when he became a senior consultant for the International Center for Leadership in Education, a New York-based outfit headed by provocative ed guru Willard Daggett (for a glimpse of the guru, see this St. Pete Times story here). "We must completely overhaul our secondary schools or all our students," Warford says in his letter to the ed commish search firm. "To do less is to forfeit their future and to compromise the prosperity of our great state."
- Ron Matus, state education reporter
Tomorrow: Eric J. Smith