Richard Corcoran once backed state testing for private schools accepting tax credit scholarships. Will he again?

The incoming Florida education commissioner opened the door for added accountability in 2012 legislation.
House speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, pounds the gavel to start the first day of legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
House speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, pounds the gavel to start the first day of legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
Published Jan. 3, 2019

As Richard Corcoran assumes his new $276,000-per-year job — his official first day was Dec. 31 — many Floridians have raised questions about just how far he might go to pursue his "students-first" agenda.

The former state House speaker has made no secret of his support for growing Florida's many education options, including charter schools and tax credit scholarships, in pursuit of providing children a "world-class" learning experience regardless of place or system.

His critics have complained that his ideas divert taxpayer funds to private institutions that remain largely free of the test-based accountability system that district-run schools must abide.

But Corcoran has, in the past, voiced his backing for the use of that same assessment model for the private schools that accept state assistance. It was his own 2012 legislation that opened the door for them to use the FCAT (since replaced) as a way to measure student performance. (Charter schools already must offer state exams.)

The provision remains in law today.

At the time, Corcoran told the Gradebook he recommended only voluntary use because he didn't think he could get a mandatory provision through the Legislature.

"I don't have to walk into a bar and go up to a six-foot-six guy who looks pretty mean and say, 'You're a piece of (junk) and I want to kick your butt' to know what the consequences are going to be," Corcoran said in a 2012 interview.

He did not take the idea any further then, or since. He did, however, suggest in the same interview he might consider it if he saw a path to get it done, as the state exam was a "great measurement" that helped propel student performance upward.

"[T]o the extent we can have an apples to apples comparison, I would hope the private schools would look at this as an opportunity and say, 'Now that we can take it, let's go out there and take it and show people we are an excellent institution.' That's the way the market works," Corcoran said at the time. "And if it does do that, you see so many studies from around the nation that when you have an apples to apples comparison, and you have these programs and the additional competition … that rising tide raises all ships. And every student in all of our schools, from public to private, get a better education."

Corcoran did not respond to an inquiry this week whether he would support such a move through rule making with the Board of Education, an area that now falls under his purview as commissioner.

If he were to do so, though, the idea could face skepticism all around.

Choice supporters haven't wanted to burden private schools with too much bureaucracy, and traditional public school activists have opposed the state's testing regimen as too extreme already.

Former state education commissioner Tony Bennett, who served from late 2012 to mid 2013, found such a dynamic in place when he brought forth the idea early in his short tenure.

"I do believe this philosophically," Bennett, a strong voucher supporter and Jeb Bush ally, said at the time. "I do believe we have a responsibility, be it at a public school or whatever, when we are spending taxpayer dollars – and I go back to what I believe we should do, set expectations, set standards and hold people accountable – that we should be able to prove that schools perform for the money they are given."

A report issued in early 2013 found few private school officials saying they would stop accepting vouchers simply because of a state testing mandate — a position echoed by officials at Florida's primary tax credit scholarship funding organization.

More concerning to the schools was any legislative effort to force a change in their admission procedures or their curriculum choices, particularly relating to religion.

To be clear, this idea has not resurfaced in any meaningful way in Florida over the past five years, even as lawmakers took some steps, however small, to place more regulatory restrictions on schools accepting tax credit scholarships. As the new administration takes hold, with a stated goal of improving the choice model, observers might keep an eye on whether any proposals come up.