Sunday, December 17, 2017
Education

Search for Florida education chief is extended to find better candidates

Citing a lack of qualified candidates, the Florida Board of Education on Tuesday extended its search for a new education commissioner by two months.

Thursday's application deadline is now Nov. 30.

"You've seen the list of names submitted," vice chairman Roberto Martinez of Coral Gables said after the board's four-minute morning conference call. "I don't see any names on that list that rise to the very high standard I am looking for."

Just 16 hopefuls submitted resumes to search firm Ray and Associates. The most notable names included 2011 finalist Thomas Jandris, a dean at Concordia University Chicago; former Miami-Dade lawmaker Ana Rivas-Logan; and Ebbie Parsons III, a charter school consultant.

Given Florida's national reputation for its education initiatives, the apparent lack of interest in the job by high-profile candidates puzzled many observers.

"That's odd," education historian Diane Ravitch, a leading critic of test-based accountability efforts, said in an email. "Florida is on the cutting edge of the movement to privatize public education, and there are no shortage of people eager to jump on the gravy train."

Rick Hess, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agreed that Florida would be expected to attract top-notch leaders seeking to make a name for themselves.

"For a place like Florida, the big problem should be sorting through the flood of talented applicants at this point," he said.

Hess noted that other states, including New Mexico and Louisiana, have had no trouble luring "outstanding" candidates for their education chief jobs.

"The fact that the pool is not up to snuff should be a real issue" for Florida, he said.

He and others pointed to the politics surrounding the job as a key reason for the holdouts.

Gov. Rick Scott ushered out well-regarded Eric Smith in 2011 without much explanation, leading many in the field to question Florida's commitment to the commissioner. That search drew mostly second-tier candidates, ultimately bringing in Gerard Robinson, Virginia's secretary of education.

Robinson abruptly resigned a year later amid angry criticism of the state's testing regimen, prompting the current search.

Anyone looking to avoid extreme political interference might rethink Florida, said Adam Emerson of the reform-focused Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

"The governor is sending out signals that make the recruitment of a top-flight candidate more challenging," Emerson said via e-mail.

Scott lately has signaled his interest in making public education a priority, going on a "listening tour" to hear concerns while also voicing support for a reduction in teachers' paperwork and a scaling back of testing. Even those moves got him only mixed reaction.

"The governor says he doesn't want schools teaching to the test, but results-based accountability is important to most Republican-minded education leaders," Emerson observed. "These aren't the conditions that attract a rock-star applicant."

Martinez was more charitable, saying Scott has "learned on the job" when it comes to education issues. "That's a positive."

A spokeswoman for Scott did not respond directly to the criticisms leveled against the governor as a factor in the limited candidate pool.

"We are taking the necessary time to pick the best candidate for the position," deputy press secretary Jackie Schutz said via email, when asked for a comment.

Martinez stressed that the board is looking for someone of Smith's caliber, while also seeking assurances from political leaders that they'll allow the next commissioner to operate unimpeded by shifting agendas. Martinez and board member Kathleen Shanahan have said they've been letting lawmakers and the governor's office know that the commissioner needs breathing room to do the job well at a demanding time of change.

Finding that person will take time, he said. So it makes sense to wait until after the elections, Martinez said, when top-flight candidates will better know if they're available to Florida because their bosses won or lost elections elsewhere.

If the board still doesn't like its list, members agreed, it can again postpone planned Dec. 11 interviews and a Dec. 12 selection.

"We're not going to lower our standards," chairman Gary Chartrand said.

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

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