7 things insider expects from Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran

Lobbyist Sara Clements previously worked for Step Up for Students and the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran
SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran
Published Jan. 18, 2019|Updated Jan. 18, 2019

Richard Corcoran might have left the Florida House speakership behind, but he continues to wield influence over state education policy as newly appointed education commissioner.

Sara Clements, a veteran of the state’s education reform movement, predicts bold action from the former lawmaker. She anticipates action on charter schools, choice, career education and more, in this guest column for the Gradebook:

Florida’s new Commissioner of Education did not rise through the ranks of the state agency, nor did he cut his teeth as a teacher in the public school classroom. But he is no stranger to K-12 education policy.

Until November, Richard Corcoran was Speaker of the Florida House Representatives, one of the most powerful positions in the nation’s third largest state. And for the two years he held that post, reforming the state’s K-12 education system was one of his top priorities. From recruiting out-of-state charter management organizations to allowing bullied students to attend private school using corporate tax credit funding, his tenure was certainly not without controversy. But for those eager to give parents more options, he was, and is, seen as a champion.

Corcoran follows in the footsteps of one of the state’s most well-known reformers, Governor Jeb Bush. In fact, former Senate President and one-time district superintendent, Don Gaetz, told the Tampa Bay Times, “they {those who found Governor Bush to be transformative} will find Richard Corcoran the most disruptive education reformer in our state’s history.” He’s also widely respected, even by critics, for his public policy acumen, tenacity, and skills navigating difficult political climates, which comes in handy when you’re trying to revolutionize one of the most sacred institutions in our country today.

An acolyte of Jeb Bush and chief of staff to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio during Marco’s own House speakership term, Corcoran now reports to newly-elected Governor Ron DeSantis, who hand-picked Corcoran prior to the State Board of Education’s appointment. A defender of parental empowerment himself, DeSantis campaigned on increasing educational choice, making numerous campaign stops at private schools to promote the state’s K-12 scholarship programs. While we don’t know how their views align on every issue, it’s clear Governor DeSantis is comfortable with the kind of disruption Commissioner Corcoran is likely to bring.

So what might we expect from a DeSantis/Corcoran administration?

Below are a few issues likely to surface in the coming years:

Expansion of private choice programs. First, and no surprise to anyone following Florida politics, expect the new administration to work with legislative leaders to, once again, increase access to K-12 scholarship programs. This may include expansion of funding sources for tax credit scholarships, increasing eligibility and dollars for the state’s education savings account program for students with special needs, known as the Gardiner Scholarship, or even the creation of a new program altogether. And with two new conservative members on the state Supreme Court, legislators are likely more open than ever to experimenting with state-funded vouchers.

Continued focus on recruitment and replication of high-performing charter schools. Building off Florida’s 2017 “Schools of Hope” legislation, leaders are most likely to target high poverty areas or zones of low-performing district schools. This could include national networks like IDEA Public Schools (which has already made known its intentions of moving into Florida) or home-grown “mom and pop” charters that currently exist in the state. Additionally, watch for more resources and support at the state level for charter school applicants and for existing charters poised to grow.

Renewed focus on workforce pathways in high school. The one issue both gubernatorial candidates found alignment on during the campaign was a call to revive vocational and technical education. As it happens, Florida’s robust industry certification program is already the envy of many states, but too few students or educators know these options are available. Expect leaders to build off the current program, which may include a push for increasing certificate offerings and access to more students and/or additional incentives for instructors teaching in this area.

Course correction on school turnaround. Commissioner Corcoran was heavily involved in recent legislative efforts to curb timelines on school improvement, making a number of changes to the state’s Differentiated Accountability system in 2017. Look for the Department to shift from a focus primarily on compliance to one of intense support and accountability. Even without additional legislative action--if resources are put toward it--there is much the agency can do to assist districts in turning around low-performing schools.

Increase in fiscal transparency and accountability. A long-standing question of legislative leaders and even some reform-minded district school board members is, how are state and local funds being managed by districts and schools? And, how many dollars are being used directly in support of student instruction? On the campaign trail, Governor DeSantis called for 80% of education funds to go directly into the classroom. Assuming legislative leaders take up the issue, the debate will be how “classroom” is defined.

Revisiting teacher recruitment and retention. One of the more controversial issues pushed by Corcoran in his rise to leadership was known as the Best & Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program, which uses college and graduate school entrance exams to award bonuses of up to $6,000 to teachers and $5,000 to principals. Expect legislative leaders to once again look at ways to recruit and retain top talent for the classroom, including the use of alternative certification routes or overall changes to teacher certification.

More and better information for parents. Expect new and innovative ways to help parents make decisions regarding all educational choices, including traditional public, charter, private, and virtual schools, as well as available scholarships and district open enrollment. This could be in the form of school report cards, a database of schools and programs with tools to make comparisons, or a digital marketplace that enables parents to access and provide feedback on educational options and products.

Regardless of the specific priorities that are taken up, one thing is clear: Florida’s new Commissioner will not be afraid to butt heads with systems or institutions if they are perceived to be at odds with efforts to promote high quality options for students.

Sara Clements, a former public school teacher, is vice president in the State Government Relations group at McGuireWoods Consulting LLC. She concentrates on education issues and policy. She can be reached at