Five months after Gov. Rick Scott took office, the Board of Education has hired a new education commissioner of his choosing, Virginia Education Secretary Gerard Robinson. Robinson clearly shares Scott's support for school vouchers, charter schools and basing teacher pay on students' performance. But he acknowledges that his new job involves overseeing education for the vast majority of students who deserve to be taught in well-run public schools. He now needs to deliver that pragmatism on the job in the face of an education system constantly buffeted by political tides.
Scott's record on public education is still to be written. He largely rode the Legislature's shirttails during the spring session, and his ambivalence toward the state's well-regarded commissioner, Eric Smith, led Smith to resign. This week, with the education board's acquiescence, Scott handpicked Robinson for a job far larger than his current one advising Virginia's governor on education policy. In Florida, Robinson will command a staff of hundreds and be the chief liaison with 67 school districts.
Robinson will assume the helm at a moment of dramatic change, with more on the horizon. By this fall, state law requires school districts to begin implementing a system to evaluate teachers based on students' performance on standardized tests — many of which have yet to be developed or tested. The system is supposed to lay the groundwork for a merit-based teacher pay system by 2014.
All that work is required as districts go into the next school year with nearly 8 percent less money per student than a year ago.
Some of the Legislature's Republican leaders have acknowledged that in the rush to approve the teacher evaluation system, details received short shrift and they anticipate having to revise the system next spring to ensure it doesn't financially punish good teachers. That's why Robinson's position will be so important.
It will be up to Robinson to speak truthfully to Scott and legislative leaders about what is and isn't working — not just what the latest reform movement claims is the answer. It will also be his job, as legislators push once again for private school vouchers and more charter schools, to ensure such efforts don't drain resources from the greater number of students in traditional public schools.
Robinson said this week he doesn't believe any specific reform is the silver bullet to fix what ails public schools. He also said he wanted to hear more from teachers about how the new evaluation system should be implemented.
That is encouraging. Such remarks suggest that even as he embraces some of the more controversial elements of the reform movement, he has not wholly adopted the alienating rhetoric of some of its biggest champions. He appears to realize that improving public schools requires collaborating with those who actually do the teaching. That's the right message and one Robinson should help spread throughout Tallahassee for the sake of Florida's schoolchildren.