Getting tough: Florida's education chief Richard Corcoran tells school districts to fall in line

Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran, seen here at a June news conference with Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, is taking a more aggressive approach to make sure school districts are teaching every subject required under state law. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran, seen here at a June news conference with Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, is taking a more aggressive approach to make sure school districts are teaching every subject required under state law. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Aug. 12, 2019

Mental health. Career planning. Personal finances.

The list of topics that Florida lawmakers have required school districts to cover in classrooms continued to grow this year — some with little advance notice or funding to support them.

The mental health mandate, for instance, came from the State Board of Education less than a month before classes were set to resume. It requires school districts to provide five hours of "mental and emotional health education" each year for students in middle and high school.

"The rule is, I think, incredible," said board member Ben Gibson.

In past years, such a late-adopted rule would have caused a few heads to turn, but wouldn't have caused much panic. The state trusted districts to implement the many requirements passed down from lawmakers without too much interference.

But Florida's new education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, is taking a more aggressive stance. And he's guiding the State Board to flex authority it rarely wielded in the past, sometimes threatening consequences if school districts don't comply.

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Witness the recent situation in Palm Beach County, where Spanish River High principal William Latson told a parent he could not prove the Holocaust occurred. That incident prompted Corcoran to demand Palm Beach superintendent Donald Fennoy show exactly how his district teaches Holocaust history as required by the state law that details every topic the Legislature says public schools should be teaching.

The so-called "required instruction" law covers everything from the core subjects to more specific lessons such as kindness to animals, the sacrifices of military veterans and the recently approved classes on mental health.

"I intend to exercise all avenues afforded to me through Florida statutes and rules to investigate and act," Corcoran told Fennoy in his July 10 letter.

Soon after, the department told the other 66 school districts in Florida to explain how they are teaching the Holocaust, as well as following brand new legislation treating anti-Semitism in schools as racism.

By early August, the department announced it was working on a new rule requiring districts to "document" that they were following the required instruction law.

The law does not apply to charter schools.

The new, tough-sounding enforcement approach out of Corcoran's department has raised some eyebrows at a time when the state has convened a grand jury to determine whether school districts are following the state's school security law. The State Board also has openly talked of school takeovers in districts where it isn't satisfied with improvement efforts at low-performing campuses.

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State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat and one of the state's most liberal lawmakers, called the department's steps "coercive" and "threatening."

She said she found it ironic that conservative Republicans who bristled at federal education mandates as intrusive would turn around and exert state-level powers to impose their own vision on local school districts.

She suggested the education department's new posture, paired with the enforcement hammer that appears on the horizon, are setting the stage for the state to take control in districts that aren't hewing to the playbook.

"It's an opportunity to put people in who fit your philosophy," Eskamani said. "And it's not even subtle."

Corcoran, interviewed Monday as he toured Tampa's Broward Elementary on the first day of school, acknowledged the new approach.

"It's just, accountability works," he said. "And so in all these areas that the Legislature has spoken and governor has spoken — they said, 'This matters to us in helping children to get a world class education' — we're going to follow up and make sure that all the stuff that they have been duly elected to put into place to help children is getting done."

Senate Republican Leader Kathleen Passidomo of Naples said she had not heard anything about the department or board taking a dogmatic stance that districts must buckle down, or else.

"The most logical way to look at it is this: Is the Board of Education doing their job to make sure, if there is a complaint, if there is a problem, it is handled?" Passidomo said. "I'm sure it is not a global, 'I'm bigger than you are.'"

She noted that, in all levels of government, there have been times when local officials have flouted state law. If it happens enough, the state might step in.

"It's unfortunate, because the districts that do their job and do the right thing are burdened with another legislative directive because some districts are not responding well," Passidomo said.

Support for added enforcement of the required instruction law have not been limited to one side of the political spectrum, though.

Rep. Geraldine Thompson, another Orange County Democrat, recently announced her plan to file legislation to hold superintendents accountable if they don't follow that law — especially as it relates to African-American and Holocaust history.

Thompson, who did not respond to a request for comment, told the Florida Phoenix that these requirements have been on the books for decades, yet many schools barely teach the material.

"No one is reporting, no one is inspecting. There is no accountability and no repercussions and consequences," she told the online publication.

Similar situations have led to interventions before, as Passidomo observed. Teacher evaluations offer one example.

The Legislature had passed a little-followed law requiring districts to use student performance data to help evaluate teachers. Repeated battles over performance pay, with limited compliance, led directly to the current law that includes revamped pay schedules tied to outcomes, and annual rather than continuing employment contracts.

School district officials aim to navigate the required instruction issue better.

They start conversations by noting how the material, whether women's contribution to U.S. history or kindness to animals, is important for students to learn.

The next step is to figure out how to incorporate them into the school day with the least amount of disruption.

Many of the required lessons, after all, fit neatly into existing academic standards and courses needed to advance in school and graduate.

"For us, it's all about looking for natural entry points," said Marcy Hetzler-Nettles, Pasco County assistant superintendent for middle schools.

Several of the mental health expectations, for example, fall into current health and counseling courses, she said. The key for districts, she explained, is working through what's already in place and ensuring all students get the material without disrupting other requirements.

"We're always pressed for time," said Matt Blum, a Pinellas County high school social studies specialist. "So leveraging the structures we already have can be helpful."

Districts often have the materials available, Blum added. If they don't, he continued, they often have access to outside resources from museums and other experts.

"A textbook is just one resource," he said. "And it shouldn't be the only resource."

Getting rated for implementing required lessons isn't necessarily new, Blum noted. More often than not, though, it was a voluntary program, such as the African-American History Task Force's recognition of exemplary performance.

The Department of Education appears poised to take it to the next level. The wording of its anticipated rule has not yet been published to know the full extent.

Board chairman Andy Tuck suggested having such a rule makes sense.

"School districts have a responsibility to provide the required instruction as outlined in the law," he said in an email. "The Department of Education takes seriously that students receive instruction in subjects that are vital to their knowledge of the world around them."

Staff Writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.