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  1. The Education Gradebook

Former Speaker Richard Corcoran could win top Florida education post today

Richard Corcoran, right, was greeted by state Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples, a fellow Republican, on the last day of legislative session in March as Corcoran was ending his term as House Speaker. Now, with Corcoran expected to be Florida's next education commissioner, many expect him to interact regularly with his old colleagues in the Legislature. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Richard Corcoran, right, was greeted by state Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples, a fellow Republican, on the last day of legislative session in March as Corcoran was ending his term as House Speaker. Now, with Corcoran expected to be Florida's next education commissioner, many expect him to interact regularly with his old colleagues in the Legislature. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Dec. 14, 2018

When former House Speaker Richard Corcoran was running for governor, he said he was going to "go big, or go home."

His "big" now appears to be the state's top education job, overseeing a high-profile bureaucracy that handles issues as wide-ranging as teacher certification, student testing, school improvement and charter school appeals.

Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis has recommended Corcoran for the commissioner's job, which Pam Stewart has agreed to leave Jan. 8. And the State Board of Education, which includes several members of the DeSantis transition team, has agreed to take up the appointment at a 10 a.m. meeting today in the Capitol.

Few expect anything but quick approval for the Pasco County politician.

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Former state Senate president Don Gaetz, who has consulted with DeSantis about the role, gave Corcoran 90-10 odds of being seated.

"I would expect the Board of Education would show great deference to the governor they work for," Gaetz said. "Richard Corcoran is an outstanding candidate. He will bring vastly needed changes and improvements to the Department of Education and to education in general."

When the board last met in October, it extended Stewart's term by a year, and did not have any more sessions planned during 2018. Soon after DeSantis won election, the board added a December conference call meeting to its calendar, without explanation.

After DeSantis expressed his preference for Corcoran, a fellow traveler in the anti-tax, pro-charter world, Stewart resigned and the board changed its next meeting to an in-person affair. Today's agenda calls for consideration of a new commissioner, without any background materials attached.

The absence of a name or resume has not stopped Corcoran backers, such as former Gov. Jeb Bush, from praising his potential, or critics, including state and local teacher organizations, from mounting a campaign to urge board members to conduct thorough search for a more experienced educator. They argued that the position is too important to hand to an "out of work politician" who they contend seeks to privatize the public school system.

The St. Augustine Record newspaper, which serves a county with one of Florida's highest-performing public school systems, lamented the possibility.

"The charter school fox is heading for the Department of Education hen house and, for public schooling, that's finger-lickin' bad," the paper said in an editorial, also calling Corcoran a "hack."

In 2007, 2011 and 2012, the State Board looked nationally for the commissioner. It found Eric Smith, who lasted four years, at the College Board in New York; Gerard Robinson in Virginia's education department, and Tony Bennett in Indiana, where he had lost election as public schools superintendent.

After neither Robinson nor Bennett lasted a full year, the board turned to consummate insider Stewart, the department's K-12 chancellor, to take charge. Some observers have speculated that the shaky tenures of the outsiders have primed the state to stick with the tried and true.

And Corcoran fits that description. He's been known for his shrewd political ability since his days as Marco Rubio's chief of staff, and his passion for conservative education issues such as tax credit scholarships and teacher performance pay came through clearly during his legislative tenure.

If the board appoints him, he's expected to transform the usually behind-the-scenes job into a more high-profile bully pulpit for pushing the DeSantis agenda, which includes a call for increasing vocational programs, reviewing the state's standards and curriculum, and expanding choice programs such as tax credit scholarships. They anticipate him working with legislators, most of whom he already knows, to forward ideas in law and then shape them into rules.

PROFILE: Richard Corcoran takes center stage leading Florida House

One big question is whether the state's elected superintendents and school board members will share the vision, or push back as they have in recent years for increased funding to meet growing needs and against state mandates they can't afford. While the commissioner runs a state agency, he or she does not control local districts, which have their own constitutional authority.

But first, the State Board has to decide whether it will accept DeSantis' recommendation or look elsewhere for a new commissioner. Corcoran has yet to publicly explain why he wants the job, and board members have not responded to questions about how they view his nomination.

The board's meeting is scheduled to stream live on The Florida Channel.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or . Follow @jeffsolochek.