A weekend interview with T. Willard Fair, former chairman, Florida Board of Education
For more than a decade, T. Willard Fair has been a central player in the Florida education makeover directed by former Gov. Jeb Bush. He and Bush started the state’s first charter school in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood in 1996, and Bush appointed him to the state Board of Education in 2003. Fair was board chairman when he resigned last week to protest Gov. Rick Scott’s role in the pending departure of Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith. Fair talked to reporter Ron Matus about Scott, teacher pay, universal vouchers and other topics. The interview was edited slightly for length.
Are you worried that Gov. Scott is taking Florida in a different direction with education?
I don’t know what direction he’s going in. I can’t comment about that. There is no indication as to what direction he is going in. One would hope that he would have had a conversation, at least, with the commissioner, about, ‘This is where I want to go with education over the next four years.’ Based on that kind of conversation, the commissioner could say, ‘That makes sense to me, I’d like to be part of that team’ or ‘I don’t think that’s the way we ought to be going and I’m going to submit my resignation.’ So no one has any idea as to where he is going.
I thought that flirting with Michelle Rhee was inappropriate, having not had a conversation with the commissioner about where he is going. I thought for him to continue to have those public conversations with her was quite unfair.
It sounds like you are worried.
I’m concerned. That’s why I felt I had to say as loud as I could that I am concerned. I’m so concerned that I need to get out of here. Because this thing may go in a direction that I don’t want to be a part of.
We have some pressing budgetary issues. Are you at all concerned that the strides Florida has made will be undermined by a lack of adequate funding?
We know our budget crisis is real. That’s a given fact. It’s not people playing games with smoke and mirrors. We simply do not have enough revenue to meet our current expenses. Given that fact, that we have to have a balanced budget, means that some things are going to have to be cut. The tough decision is, where do you cut? And I think that the last place that you cut is in education. The absolutely last place.
But we are talking about fairly sizeable cuts to education.
We’re talking about it. But I have no control over that. I’m just saying that’s the last place I think you cut.
Again, are you worried that these money issues are going to undermine progress?
Clearly, we’re worried. But there’s no sense in worrying about things you have no control over. Certainly we’re worried. And we’ve tried to do everything in our power to impress upon the speaker of the house and the president of the senate and all of those who are on the education committees to share the same kind of commitment, that education should be the last thing to be cut. That’s all we can do.
Have you told them, if you keep cutting you might undermine these gains we’re making?
You don’t have to make that speech. Any intelligent person knows if you cut education significantly then you begin to undermine the gains that you’ve made. And you begin to go backwards.
There are a lot of teachers who are anxious right now with what lies ahead with the teaching professional in general and their own jobs and livelihoods personally, because SB 736 is now the law of the land. What would you tell them about the future?
Good teachers will survive.
So you’re saying most of them don’t have reason to worry?
I don’t think so. Good teachers will survive. Good teachers don’t have any reason to worry.
During most of your time on the board, Florida teacher salaries were getting close to the mid range nationally. Now because of these budget problems they’re falling to among the lowest nationally. When it comes to teacher recruitment and teacher retention, does that worry you?
No it does not. Because every state is going through what Florida is going through. There are no oases out there where you can say, ‘I’m leaving here because I can go there and make 10 times more money.’
They can go over the border and make $6,000 or $8,000 more in Georgia.
Yeah, but by the time they pay for the fuel and by the time they go through the frustration of buying a new wardrobe, it’ll balance out.
So you’re not concerned about teacher salaries falling relative to other states?
Is there a connection between teacher pay and teacher quality?
Absolutely. And that’s why the good teachers will survive and that’s what 736 does.
You mean it will pay them more?
But if we’re having budget problems how can they be paid more?
Good teachers will survive with whatever is the more. If you got $2, then it means the best teachers will make a dollar and a half and the bad teachers will make 50 cents. If you got $5, it means the best teachers will make $3 and the bad teachers will make $2. So no matter what the amount of money is, once again, the best teachers will survive. And they’ll make the best money.
You were an early supporter of charters and vouchers, when not too many others were on the same page. Now you see even Democratic lawmakers embracing vouchers. Why have they moved in your direction?
Because I was not assassinated. Once again, I dared to be unpopular. It was not that the NAACP or others thought I had lost my mind. It was based on the fact that they have a proclivity to always want to say things that appease to the black ear. But they knew, as I said way back when, that choice was going to be the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Nothing has changed about the merit of the idea. It’s just that it has proven to be, once again, the right way to go.
What do you think of education savings accounts? Should every family be able to get a voucher?
I have mixed feelings about that. If every family gets a voucher, then what does it do to all the families that really need the vouchers. There’s only so much money. So I got mixed feelings about that.
Do you see that idea getting traction?
Oh absolutely. Absolutely. Because once again, middle class Florida and middle class America will now clearly understand that they can now get some money that allows them to go where they want to go at my expense. They’re smart enough. They know how to apply. They have the initiative that’s going to be required. So you will see other folks take advantage of it, maybe to the detriment of my folks.
So will you oppose it if it starts to get traction?
I got mixed feelings about it. I have to think it through. Where I am right now, I probably would.
Some folks were surprised that you voted for the new science standards in 2008 that embraced the teaching of evolution. You’ve made no bones about the fact that you’re a very religious man. So was that a hard decision?
It was. It was a hard decision. But I think it was the right decision. I’m grounded in my faith. So I don’t think being exposed to someone else’s idea was going to change my mind.
Tell me what you think of President Obama’s education vision.
I’m impressed. I think we’re on the right path. And because of the fact of what we’re doing, it’s easy for us to buy into the president’s education initiatives. I happen to believe that education is the key. And there is nothing more important in my estimation than the pursuit of education. I fully support, with few exceptions, his education agenda.
Did you expect him to be so much on the same page as you?
Really didn’t have any idea as to whether he would or would not be. I knew he had strong union support. As you drill down, there are some instances where I’m pretty sure he’s going to be sort of careful as to how forceful he’s going to be. I don’t think the NEA and other folks are going to let him really come all the way to our side. But I’m all right with what he’s doing at this point.
What are you doing at this point? What’s next for you in the education realm?
The Urban League of Greater Miami (where Fair is the president) is known as the education affiliate. So education is all that we do, full time, on my job. So a volunteer on the state Board of Education was just an extension really of what I do in life. So I will continue to do what we always have done over the past 25 years. And that is implement a series of programs that on the surface close the achievement gap between black children in Liberty City and the rest of the state.
Note: In response to Fair's statements, Brian Hughes, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, said the governor clearly has a plan for improving Florida’s education system, pointing to Scott’s signing last week of the teacher pay and tenure bill - the very first bill he signed - and to remarks he made later supporting expansion of charter schools. “His actions and his numerous statements would contradict the idea that there’s no plan,” Hughes said.
As for Scott’s support of Michelle Rhee, Hughes said the former Washington D.C. schools chief is “an internationally recognized expert in education” who continues to be an advisor to the governor.