Saturday, April 21, 2018
Education

Florida State Board of Education names interim education commissioner

Tapped to be Florida's interim education commissioner, Pam Stewart thinks it's critical for the state to continue moving toward higher academic standards.

"I don't want to see us lose ground in education reform during a transition," Stewart said via e-mail Thursday, hours after the State Board of Education unanimously appointed her to replace Gerard Robinson, who announced his resignation Tuesday.

A respected educator statewide, Stewart has been K-12 chancellor, essentially second-in-command, since September. She did not plan, however, to seek the job full-time. "I will serve as interim until a permanent appointment is made."

State Board members indicated Thursday they want to move quickly to fill the job and will likely use Ray and Associates, the same company that helped find Robinson a year ago. The firm agreed to conduct a new search for free if its chosen applicant leaves within two years of taking the commissioner's job.

Robinson started as commissioner on July 31, 2011.

Education analysts are watching Florida closely.

Gov. Rick Scott will have to get very involved in the selection process to instill confidence in prospective hires, said Andy Rotherham, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton.

"He's gone through commissioners like a little kid goes through shoes," Rotherham said, noting that the forced resignation of Robinson's predecessor Eric Smith raised concerns nationally. "He has to be able to engender confidence among the caliber of candidates they're going to need."

Some activist groups are already clamoring for a new commissioner who will lead the state away from what they consider a divisive and discredited accountability system.

Board members have said they hope to attract a leader who has made a mark nationally in education reform. They didn't expect a large number of qualified applicants, perhaps a dozen or so.

"I would imagine we could present a real opportunity for education leaders around the nation who are interested in continuing education reform," said board member Sally Bradshaw.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed to some who currently hold similar roles in other states. The possibilities: New Mexico education secretary Hanna Skandera, a former Florida deputy commissioner, and Idaho superintendent of public instruction Tom Luna, who's close to former governor Jeb Bush.

At the same time, Hess added, Florida's political dynamics and its prescriptive evaluation, testing and related mandates from Senate Bill 736 might make the job less attractive to some outside leaders.

"It's going to be really tough to be the state chief as all that is playing out," he said.

Perhaps a Florida lawmaker, superintendent or advocate of Senate Bill 736 might be "a natural" instead, Hess suggested.

Education analyst Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who served in the George W. Bush administration, agreed that a politically savvy superintendent of a large Florida school district who's supportive of the state's broad reform agenda could fit the bill.

Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho and Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia have both come up in past discussions about the commissioner job.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

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