Sunday, May 27, 2018
Education

Florida Education Commissioner Robinson says he wasn't forced out

Despite his rocky tenure, Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson insisted Wednesday that leaving was his choice.

"I am not being forced out by Gov. Rick Scott," Robinson said Wednesday. "I am not being forced out by Chair (Kathleen) Shanahan or the State Board of Education."

Robinson's sudden announcement that he was resigning effective Aug. 31, however, sparked speculation about his reasons for leaving and who will replace him. It also continued to put a spotlight on a statewide debate about testing and how Florida's accountability system should evolve.

Not since 2003 when the state began appointing an education commissioner instead of electing one has the position generated such interest. Even Pinellas School Board candidates were asked during a luncheon Wednesday whom would they pick for education commissioner if they had a choice.

The State Board of Education will meet in a conference call today to discuss how to replace Robinson, who was hired in 2011. In his letter to Scott, Robinson alluded to the strain of being apart from his family, who remain in Virginia.

Miami Democrat Rep. Dwight Bullard said Wednesday in a news release that Robinson "has clearly lost confidence in the direction of Gov. Scott."

Robinson laughed and said, "I disagree with that conclusion. This is politics."

Still, he acknowledged his tenure included major controversial changes and heated "adult conversations about children." But the end result, he believes, is that more Floridians are focused on the FCAT, writing standards, testing and aspects of student preparation than before.

"It's a movement," Robinson said. "I think that's healthy. There will continue to be momentum gained. The question is: Does it mean moving closer to testing, or further away?"

Backers of the Florida's current testing system viewed the recent miscues with FCAT scores and school grades as blips. They argue that tougher requirements will lead to improved student outcomes in the end.

But parent groups, school boards and education organizations have in recent months challenged the heavy emphasis that Florida places on testing results.

Robinson's departure "gives the state board and the governor another opportunity to sit down and listen to the parents and teachers and administrators and everybody who has been so critical of the system," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association.

House Democratic leader Rep. Perry Thurston suggested in a statement that the time has arrived to find a commissioner who will lead Florida away from the "misuse of the FCAT."

House Speaker Will Weatherford, however, said he expected the next commissioner to build upon Florida's academic successes. He praised Robinson for performing a "thankless job" with integrity.

"We're in a place where we know we have to continue to get better," Weatherford said. "My hope is we continue to find a reform-minded leader who believes in the empowerment of parents and the empowerment of students. We've made tremendous gains. … We want someone who can continue the momentum."

State board members shared Weatherford's perspective.

In an email, board member John Padget said the board's challenge is to find a new education commissioner to carry on the initiatives Robinson launched, including raising the bar for high school graduation and guiding the state through a transition to higher standards.

Shanahan said she held Robinson in high regard and hoped to "attract similar talent to come in and guide Florida's pre-k to college system through the next chapter."

She said the board would review its past efforts to find a commissioner, using a search firm and interviewing finalists before making a selection. She said the board also might look to an interim commissioner during the process, but noted no decisions have been made.

One name that popped up was that of former interim chancellor Mike Grego. Grego said he received a "couple calls" about Robinson's resignation, but hasn't given much thought to being interim commissioner.

He said he enjoyed Tallahassee, but he wants to be the next superintendent in Pinellas.

"Unless something changes, that's where it is," he said.

Robinson said he did not have anyone to recommend for the post, although he noted that 2011 finalist Bret Schundler might be a good choice. Schundler did not respond to calls or emails.

Robinson said he has no set plans for his future, except to head home to his wife and young daughters in Virginia. Robinson's wife, a tenured law professor at the University of Richmond, applied to Florida State University's School of Law but was not offered a tenured faculty position.

Times staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick and Times/Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

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