Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith resigns

Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith, who has continued pushing far-reaching school changes while the state is earning national kudos for progress, announced Monday he intends to resign June 10.

Hired by the state Board of Education in October 2007, Smith, 60, said in a statement that it's time for "our newly elected Governor to have input through the State Board of Education on the type of leader to pursue his goals for education."

He declined to comment further beyond his statement, which recounted Florida's accomplishments during his tenure.

The written response from Gov. Rick Scott was terse: "On behalf of the state of Florida, I thank him for his years of dedicated service."

State Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan of Tampa called Smith's departure "a loss for Florida's kids," noting the No. 5 ranking state schools earned this year in Education Week's annual report.

She said Scott had not forced Smith out, but had not embraced him, either. She said Smith indicated his plans when she talked with him late Friday.

"He was very matter of fact," Shanahan said. "It was, 'I was thinking about this. I can't figure out a way to establish a good relationship with the new executive branch. So I'm making this decision on my own so they can make it on their own.' "

"He's been the best education commissioner in the country the last three years," said board member Roberto Martinez of Miami. "The man did not let his ego get in the way. That's hard to find."

Smith's tenure has had its rough spots, though.

Both last year and this year, he supported divisive bills that would radically change how teachers are hired, fired and evaluated. He was also a driving force behind Florida's first Race to the Top application, which failed to win support from the U.S. Department of Education after the vast majority of Florida teachers unions rejected it.

Union leaders accused Smith of trying to use the application to unilaterally impose changes to teacher pay and evaluations. Florida's second, more flexible application won $700 million last summer after unions signed on.

"It's really important that as we're going through all these changes in the public education system that you have somebody in place that can work together with public school teachers," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the state teachers union. "We did not have that with Commissioner Smith."

The buzz began immediately about Smith's successor.

Scott sparked rumors late last year that former Washington, D.C., school chief Michelle Rhee might be Florida's next commissioner when he named her co-chair of his education transition team. But Rhee, who had just started a national education advocacy group, said then she was not interested — and stuck to that line Monday.

"Michelle is committed to continuing her work with StudentsFirst to ensure that Florida's public schools and public schools across the country provide the best education and best teachers to their students," StudentsFirst press secretary Mafara Hobson said in an e-mail.

On paper, the seven-member Board of Education selects the commissioner. Shanahan and Martinez said the board will do a national search, as it did when it selected Smith.

In reality, the governor has a huge say.

The commissioner's departure "probably has a lot to do with the fact that the governor is interested in building a team around him that he feels meets his needs," said House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614.

Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith resigns 03/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2011 5:41pm]

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