Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith has been around long enough to sense when he's not wanted. So after Gov. Rick Scott ignored him for months, Smith quietly resigned this week and cleared the way for the governor to appoint new members of the Board of Education who will help select a commissioner more to Scott's liking. That probably means someone more radical and less receptive to consensus-building.
Smith has been no defender of the status quo. He has been a national leader in education reform and is in good standing among Republicans close to former Gov. Jeb Bush, who has continued to push for an overhaul of public education since leaving office. One Bush ally, longtime education board chairman T. Willard Fair of Miami, is so angry with Scott's snubbing of Smith that he is leaving the board immediately rather than wait for his successor to be appointed. When a reformer embraced by the Bush camp is deemed too meek to be embraced by the Scott administration, that is a sure sign of trouble ahead.
Smith was a major player in drafting SB 736, a controversial teacher evaluation system that Scott signed into law this week. He also was key in winning the state's federal Race to the Top grant, but only after his first effort that antagonized unions was substituted for one that received their limited support. Smith also is a staunch defender of the FCAT, even when last year's results prompted challenges from school superintendents. And he can point to rising national test scores and graduation rates.
But now it's also clear how frustrating the past three months must have been for Smith to have been isolated by the governor, who reportedly already was considering others for his job. He gracefully submitted his resignation to the state Board of Education effective June 10, and Scott pledges to fill three open seats on the seven-member board soon.
Complicating the search for a new education commissioner will be the long shadow of Michelle Rhee, the governor's informal education adviser. The controversial Washington, D.C., schools chancellor received national attention for her push to end teacher tenure, which earned her a spot in Waiting for Superman. Rhee has said she's not interested in the Florida job, but it will be difficult to attract top candidates if she remains Scott's top adviser. No one wants to be holding the public job without the private access to the governor — as Smith can attest.
Scott has an obligation to find an education commissioner who will serve all of Florida's students, not just those of parents who share his agenda of privatizing education through vouchers or charter schools. Smith was such a leader. Now the question is whether Scott will find another one.