Richard Corcoran unanimously appointed Commissioner of Education

The appointment by the state board follows the recommendation of governor-elect Ron DeSantis earlier this month.
Published Dec. 17, 2018|Updated Dec. 17, 2018

Former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, an aggressive advocate for expanding charter schools, voucher-like scholarships and other school choice policies, was unanimously appointed to be the commissioner of education on Monday.

The commissioner is the state's chief education officer, in charge of representing Florida's public educational system (except universities), and is appointed by the State Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor. Governor-elect Ron DeSantis publicly recommended Corcoran, who has served as a top adviser to DeSantis during the transition, earlier this month.

Corcoran talked about his vision for the future of Florida's educational system, which is to move away from what he called "one-size-fits-all" schools.

"We won't be concerned with tradition, or who has the power, or who has the might," Corcoran said. "What we're going to do is break down those walls and give kids an opportunity."

The vote to appoint Corcoran came after about an hour of questions from the board members, who said they had also each met with him individually before his appearance at the Monday meeting. Their questions ranged from Corcoran's wife's role in opening a charter school to how he will help solve the state's teacher shortage to whether this appointment was a political favor from DeSantis.

Corcoran generally said he would consider raising teachers' salaries, saying they "need to be valued." In the past, he's supported teacher bonuses based on performance rather than across-the-board raises.

On that last point, said he would have been making more money if he had declined this position. He has a law degree and works for the Nelson Mullins law firm.

"I will tell you I met with partners in my firm and was offered significantly more to stay on with my firm and turned down that offer to take this offer, which was significantly less," he said.  "Don't get me wrong, as government pay goes its one of the highest government pays there are."

The current commissioner, Pam Stewart, makes $276,000 per year, according to state records.

As House speaker, Corcoran earned a reputation for being an unbending ideologue who uses strong-arm politics to ram his priorities through the Legislature. He joked about that reputation during his speech, saying he had recently been compared to Genghis Khan.

Many expect that as commissioner, Corcoran will take the Department of Education from a state agency focused on the daily grind of enforcement to a vocal driver of policy.

Several members of the audience, including Andrew Spar, the vice president of the state teachers' union, the Florida Education Association, questioned why the board would "forfeit" its ability to do a national search for the next commissioner, as it had done in the past, instead of accepting DeSantis' recommendation outright.

Michael Olenick, one of the board members, said Corcoran "checks all the boxes," eliminating the need for a search. Olenick also asked Corcoran the most questions related to how he would support traditional public schools, and said he found Corcoran's answers very satisfactory.

Following the meeting, Fedrick Ingram, the president of the FEA, told reporters the union was "disappointed" in Corcoran's pick, but said he was holding out for a sense of collaboration from the former speaker.

Teachers' unions were horrified last session when the Legislature's education omnibus bill, HB 7055, included a provision that required at least 50 percent of all eligible members to become dues-paying members or face possibly decertification. Many groups, including the FEA, alleged that it was a coordinated attack by Corcoran to disband the unions that had openly opposed his school choice measures.

But Ingram, who was also recently elected, and Corcoran were cordial in a brief conversation just outside the board meeting, as they joked about the holidays and Ingram invited Corcoran to attend the group's Feb. 1 meeting. Corcoran accepted.