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Buzz lacking in search for new commissioner of education

With a national reputation as a leader in education reform, and more aggressive changes on the way, Florida should be an easy sell for those seeking a new education commissioner.

But with less than three weeks until the deadline, the position hasn't generated much attention.

In fact, no one has yet applied.

"We've definitely not received any inquiries, and the firm has not alerted us to any," Education Department spokesman Tom Butler said of the effort to fill the spot being vacated by Eric J. Smith in mid June.

Some blame the state's open records laws that make official applications public.

"I've heard over the years … that Florida's sunshine laws prevent a lot of able people from applying for a bunch of jobs," Chester E. Finn Jr., whose think tank publishes the respected Education Next journal, said via e-mail.

Still, some board members predicted a strong field of candidates in the end. "This is a very prestigious and very attractive position," said Akshay Desai of St. Petersburg.

Former State Board of Education chairman T. Willard Fair of Miami agreed that the position should lure the nation's top reformers, considering the state's track record on issues as wide ranging as charter schools and performance pay.

But he doubts that it will.

"I think anyone with any sense would not apply for the job," Fair said. "It's obvious in the way that Commissioner Smith's tenure was handled."

Fair left his term-limited post before Gov. Rick Scott could appoint a replacement, to protest Scott's maneuvering to oust Smith, who ultimately resigned. He said Smith remains popular and respected in many education policy circles.

"Anybody in their right mind would pick up the phone and say, 'What happened, Eric?' " Fair said.

The answer, he suspected, will keep several away.

Roberto Martinez, a state board member of Coral Gables, noted that the pool of potential candidates is not big.

"I don't think there are 20 to 30 people who are qualified," he said. At least a few of the big names — former D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee, Rhode Island commissioner Deborah Gist, Virginia education secretary Gerard Robinson and Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia — have said they're happy in their current jobs.

"Interestingly, there has been almost no buzz about the Florida commissioner of education position in recent months," Patrick Riccards, who runs the Eduflack blog, said in an e-mail.

Riccards expected the ultimate choice will be surprising in a different way.

"My top choice would be Gist," he said. "But if you are looking for a few names that would be 'interesting,' I'd add the New Teacher Project's Tim Daly (a Rhee protegee), Bill Evers (assistant secretary of education under George W. Bush), or a large urban school district superintendent, such as Paul Vallas, who just left New Orleans."

With many states seeking talent from a relatively slim "bench" of GOP education reformers, Florida would be wise to actively recruit candidates, suggested Finn.

Such conversations are in play, said Kathleen Shanahan, a member of the state board from Tampa. The lack of applications doesn't mean that board members and the search firm are not conferring with potential candidates, she noted, remarking, "They are a recruiting firm."

Ray and Associates is set to give the board an update on the search on May 17. Candidate interviews are scheduled for June 1.

For Martinez, one thing is certain: Smith can't be easily replaced.

"He's been the best commissioner in the nation the past three years," he said. "I'm looking for his identical twin."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Buzz lacking in search for new commissioner of education 05/06/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 6, 2011 10:42pm]
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