Florida, the Big Man on Campus in some education reform circles, was supposed to swagger up and get the pick of the litter for a new education commissioner. It had the rep. It had the results.
But now it's looking more and more like the prom king with spinach in his teeth. The good-looking candidates don't want to dance.
The first list of 19, unveiled last week, turned out to be less a who's who of rising stars than a list of ... who? No buzz. No heft. So uninspiring that state education leaders extended the search.
A major problem, observers say: Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who some say ran off Florida's highly regarded commissioner, Eric J. Smith.
"Reformers might surmise that if the governor wasn't happy with a rock star like Eric Smith, he must be crazy," said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, a right-of-center think tank.
Even if a top-tier candidate emerges by the new June 6 deadline — and some are still being aggressively courted — it won't fully erase recent chatter that a state that has been a brash trailblazer suddenly looks dysfunctional and almost desperate.
"Nobody begrudges a governor's prerogative to have their own people," said Andy Rotherham, a former education adviser to President Bill Clinton who runs the influential Eduwonk blog. "But Eric's departure was handled in a very immatureish way that just sent a bad signal."
Scott's stiff-arm might not be the only red flag for candidates. The governor has embraced a vouchers-for-everybody system that even many voucher supporters say goes too far. His photo-op school visits with former Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee — at the same time he was reportedly refusing to meet with Smith — struck some as inappropriate. And his stand on education spending has yo-yoed in a way that even fellow Republicans find baffling.
On the campaign trail, he promised to keep school budgets the same, but once in office, he proposed a 10 percent cut. Then, last week, he vetoed $615 million from the budget and called on lawmakers to funnel it back into education.
Brian Burgess, Scott's communications director, rejected the premise that high quality candidates are not applying because of the governor. He said it's not so dramatic as that but added he is not fully connected with the process, which is being run by the Florida Board of Education.
"The person that the board eventually appoints is going to be someone who is going to be able to get the job done, a top quality applicant, and someone who agrees with the direction the governor wants to take," Burgess said.
This wasn't supposed to happen.
Since Jeb Bush was elected governor in 1998, Florida has earned a national reputation for relentlessly rolling out big, controversial reforms. School grades. Vouchers. Third-grade retention. Over that same period, by coincidence or not, the performance of Florida students has improved as much as any state in the country. Education Week magazine ranked Florida No. 5 this year, in part because of big gains on national tests and graduation rates. (Bush did not respond to an e-mail.)
"If you're a leader in the field, and you like to be challenged, this is the place to be," said board member Roberto Martinez of Miami. "We're it."
Which makes the next education commissioner that much more important.
Florida continues to spin off huge policy changes, including a massive overhaul this spring of how teachers are hired, fired and paid. The road ahead is littered with mind-numbing technical challenges — and political sensitivities — that will become potholes if not deftly handled. The creation of hundreds of new standardized tests. The crafting of new teacher evaluation systems. Statistical models that must somehow tease out a teacher's contribution to a student's test score.
Smith, even-keeled and methodical, has been shepherding all of those changes. Hired by the Board of Education in late 2007, he has been building the system that lawmakers have outlined in broad strokes and, at the same time, helping to shape it. His relations with lawmakers were so good that the Senate passed a resolution last session honoring him.
"He's as good as they come," said Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, who sponsored SB 736, the polarizing bill that changed the teaching profession. And his successor needs to be just as good, he said.
SB 736 has "got to be put in," said Wise, who chairs the Senate Education PreK-12 Committee. "Somebody better know something about how to do those things."
His take on the current list of applicants to replace Smith: "Let me put it this way: It didn't knock my socks off."
Board of Education members insisted last month, when the commissioner search seemed to be generating little interest, that they would have strong candidates in the end. They repeated that line this week.
"We're very hopeful that we're going to diversify the list of applicants," said board chair Kathleen Shanahan of Tampa. She declined to comment further.
Whitney Tilson, a nationally known education blogger and a founder of Democrats for Education Reform, said Florida's search also may be hamstrung by bad timing.
Truth be told, there aren't many candidates who orbit in the same education circles as the people running the show in Florida. And after the political landscape shifted last November, many cities and states moved quickly to snatch up budding talent.
Proteges of former New York chancellor Joel Klein and early leaders of the Teach for America organization, for example, have been snagged in recent months to head school systems in Newark, Chicago, New Orleans and Tennessee.
Tilson said Florida can still find a heavyweight. He noted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie found a big-name reformer in Chris Cerf after a disastrous political mess over the firing of Brett Schundler, his first choice for education commissioner.
"New Jersey is proof you can overcome it," Tilson said.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614.