A weekend interview with Gerard Robinson, Florida education commissioner-select
With a unanimous State Board of Education vote, and the full backing of Gov. Rick Scott, Gerard Robinson won the job this week as Florida's new education commissioner. He'll depart his current post as Virginia secretary of education some time in the fall to take over the Florida Department of Education at a time that the department is juggling several high-profile initiatives, including new teacher evaluations and end-of-course exams. Some have questioned whether Robinson, whose past jobs have been more political and less administrative, has the chops for the job. His appearance with Scott just moments after his selection raised concerns, meanwhile, that Robinson might be taking cues from the Governor's Office rather than from the board that was hiring him. Robinson spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about these and other issues in his first Florida interview since winning the commissioner's job.
Congratulations. The first thing I wanted to ask is, now that you are coming to Florida, what are your plans when you first get here? How do you plan to pursue the job?
First of all, it's an honor to be voted by the Board of Education to come on board as commissioner. I am honored also to have Gov. Scott have an interest in me being commissioner as well. For me, really, it's to spend time at the Department of Education, stake out my team, learning the different players within the organization, learning how it operates. Second is reaching out to local leaders - superintendents in particular - throughout Florida who have a great task at hand to work with our children. Third is to spend some time with the public leaders, those who I can get a chance to talk with. Pretty much the same things I was doing in Virginia, working with all the stakeholders involved who are important to education.
The question came up, during the time when they were appointing you, you were already in Tallahassee. How did you wind up there? Why didn't you stay in Tampa to see the vote?
When that question was raised before, the Governor's Office was actually responding to that and I'm actually going to let them continue to respond to that part.
Okay. Then I guess the question is, the governor appoints the board, the board appoints the education commissioner. Have you worked out the relationship there? Are you going to be reporting to the governor? The board? How is that working out?
Well, the reporting relationship that's already in place, the same one that Eric had before, is the same one that John Winn had before. Some minor changes and that. We're still under negotiations on that. We know that the governor appoints the board. We know that the board hires the commissioner. And we know that the commissioner has to work with the board, with the governor and also with the Legislature. So for me, I don't see it any different than the role Eric had.
You told a lot about your story growing up and how you worked your way through education and now you're a high profile guy who's really in support of choice. Can you talk about how you came from where you came from and how you wound up where you are.
When you say choice, what do you mean?
Well, what do you mean? Everybody talks about school choice and how you're a big supporter of that. And I know you've been involved with a lot of efforts in vouchers and charters and so forth. But it sounded like you came up through the public school ranks and I just wondered what got you to the point where you are philosophically.
The reason I ask about school choice is because when we think about it, we only think about it in terms of charters and vouchers. We don't accept the fact that the largest school choice programs in the country are parents that put their children in good public schools that work. Magnet schools have been in place a long time before charters and that. So I don't want to allow the school choice issue to be pigeonholed into just one issue, vouchers and charters. What I am for is quality education.
The work in Virginia expanded beyond charters. The work in other areas expanded beyond vouchers. For me, I am interested in making sure that parents, or taxpayers and others, have access to great public school systems. Florida has a great private school sector. It also has a great virtual school perspective. Guess what? Those are all aspects of school choice. But when we talk about the issue, we try to focus on what someone said about a contentious aspect of it, as surely there are. But there are contentious aspects of the traditional system that long preceded vouchers and charters.
So for me, I am more interested in quality schools. And when I say choice, it's really what people do right now. They exercise choice every day when they decide to put their children in school. I think one way to identify choice in action is to identify the schools they chose not to put their children in. So for me, I don't see where that's controversial.
So that is what you meant when you were speaking at the board meeting about making sure that all children have access to an excellent school, that it's all children and not just those who happen to live in the right ZIP code?
There is no way a commissioner of education with a large public system like this or in Virginia could say they are only here to represent the quote-unquote school parents. It's a broad term, it's ubiquitous. I read the article today that you guys had written. At the end of the day we know it's politics. We know it's sophistry and rhetoric. At the end of the day we know I'm responsible for trying to make sure Florida kids are college and career ready. Most of those kids will be in our public school system. That's important. Some will use charters. Some will use McKay scholarships. Some will use home school. Some will use virtual. Guess what? That's school choice in action. So for me, the all is what it should be - all the children. I just find it interesting how we try to segregate kids based upon the use of the term choice.
Do you have a single philosophy or policy that you hope to see implemented that Florida is either doing and needs to make the priority, or isn't doing yet but you'd like to see it get in play?
I don't have a single philosophy. My job is to articulate the goals of the Board of Education, the strategic mission of the governor and what the Legislature puts forward. So my job is to implement.
Okay. So you're going to be a doer?
Versus a policy writer. I don't know. Versus whatever the other thing is.
That's a fair question. This job, is there policy? Absolutely. I'll have to testify before the Legislature. Are there concepts and ideas that will be bantered about? Absolutely. Other chiefs across the country have to do the same thing. Will there be discussions, agreement and disagreement about how to move forward? Of course. There is nothing necessarily new about what I would do in Florida that I wasn't doing in Virginia. Yes, it is a larger role with some aspects of implementation. But at the end of the day, you as commissioner have to make sure that the new laws are in place, you have to make sure that common core, that PARCC, that Race to the Top are in place. And even in those initiatives one can make the case that it's expanding for all children quality education through different options.
I know, for instance, the governor has talked about wanting to expand vouchers - one of the school choices - to all students, whereas some of the lawmakers have said they would never want that. Would you have to come out with a position on that and support one way or the other? Or would you just wait and see what happens?
We haven't got to a point where that's a part of the conversation. When it comes up, I'm sure you and I will have some very interesting conversations about it.
When do you start?
We don't know yet. Our jobs in Virginia still have to take care of. ... I know in the application it's Oct. 8. [NOTE: The Florida Department of Education says the starting date is Aug. 8.] But I don't want to commit to that. Because if I come in early or I come in later, I don't want it to be a big issue. So we're in negotiation right now.
Now that you're coming to Florida, you have to wrap up stuff in Virginia. Is there stuff that you're leaving undone there? Or is it a good time to break it off?
There is a good team in place and a good team in place and a strategic plan in place that the next secretary will pick up and be able to move forward.
Are you bringing anybody with you? Or would you intend on bringing anybody with you here?
Too early to tell. I can't even comment on that right now.