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Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran to step down in April

The Pasco County lawyer and former House speaker plans to practice law, do some consulting and “start a few businesses.”
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks at a roundtable discussion on Aug. 10, 2020, at a charter school in Riverview. The former House speaker plans to step down in April to resume his career in law and business.
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks at a roundtable discussion on Aug. 10, 2020, at a charter school in Riverview. The former House speaker plans to step down in April to resume his career in law and business. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2020) ]
Published Mar. 10|Updated Mar. 10

Richard Corcoran, a controversial figure who helped champion Gov. Ron DeSantis’ conservative agenda as Florida’s education commissioner, is resigning his post this spring.

Handpicked by DeSantis to run the state Education Department in 2018, Corcoran, 56, said in an interview that he had intended to leave sooner. His departure had been expected since his ill-fated bid to become Florida State University’s president in spring 2021.

“COVID kept me longer than I anticipated,” he said

Throughout the pandemic, Corcoran led the state’s efforts to keep schools open for in-person instruction as much as possible after initial closures to assess the situation. He pushed to limit mask mandates and insisted on returning to annual testing after a one-year hiatus as a way to measure whether students made adequate progress in the face of the unusual circumstances.

Teacher and parent groups twice sued Corcoran and the department over his pandemic-related decisions. They lost each time.

Having worked through the situation, and serving the DeSantis administration through four legislative sessions, the former House speaker from Pasco County said he is ready to move on. He expected to practice law, do some consulting and “start a few businesses.”

With three children in college, he said, he wants to earn some additional money. As commissioner, Corcoran received an annual salary of $276,000, placing him among the highest-paid state officials in Florida.

His planned departure date is in late April. It comes a few months after the Department of Education came under fire for trying to steer a multimillion dollar contract to a politically connected company. The bidding scandal is under review by DeSantis’ chief inspector general.

DeSantis praised Corcoran for his service.

“He is driven by his principles and has never shied away from making the difficult decisions needed to improve the quality of education in Florida,” DeSantis said. “During his tenure, both in the House and at the department, our state has become an education juggernaut and national leader for innovation. We wish him well and thank him for his service.”

Corcoran said he expected a smooth, immediate transition to whoever takes his job.

“There are a lot of good options,” he said.

Florida K-12 Chancellor Jacob Oliva updates the State Board of Education on March 19, 2019, about efforts to review and revise state academic standards, as Gov. Ron DeSantis requested.
Florida K-12 Chancellor Jacob Oliva updates the State Board of Education on March 19, 2019, about efforts to review and revise state academic standards, as Gov. Ron DeSantis requested. [ The Florida Channel ]

From inside the department, Corcoran mentioned senior chancellor Jacob Oliva as a potential successor.

A former Flagler County superintendent, Oliva is popular among school district officials. But when he recently applied for the top job in Miami-Dade County, he was not selected, with concerns among some School Board members there about his role in a bidding scandal involving work in the Jefferson County school district.

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From within the world of politics, Corcoran name-dropped state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah.

Florida Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. debates a bill, dubbed by opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, speaks right before the bill was voted on during a legislative session at the Florida State Capitol, Tuesday, March 8, 2022, in Tallahassee.
Florida Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. debates a bill, dubbed by opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, speaks right before the bill was voted on during a legislative session at the Florida State Capitol, Tuesday, March 8, 2022, in Tallahassee. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

Diaz, an educator who works for a college affiliated with a Miami-based charter school firm, has sponsored several education-related bills advancing ideas backed by DeSantis. Those include voucher expansions, added charter school authorizers and the “individual freedoms” measure that critics contended would “whitewash” Black history in the public schools.

Corcoran held many of the same views.

During his time as a state lawmaker, he pushed to create new types of charter schools called “Schools of Hope.” He also advocated for the expansion of tax credit scholarships for students who said they were bullied in school, and helped create the heavily criticized “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus based in part on teachers’ college entry test scores.

A shrewd political tactician in the House, Corcoran launched a bid to become governor in 2018. His campaign sputtered, and he later backed DeSantis, whom he previously had called “visionless.” Before taking office, DeSantis recommended Corcoran to become education commissioner, a position appointed by the State Board of Education.

As soon as his name surfaced as a possible candidate for the job, the Florida Education Association launched a #StopCorcoran tag on social media. The teachers union said Corcoran was openly hostile to public education and to unions.

Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said that, despite having disagreed with the commissioner on most policy issues, “on the whole we had a good relationship with him.” Corcoran would talk with union leaders about issues regularly, he said, and was straightforward on his views.

He expressed hope that the next commissioner would also be willing to sit and talk about ways to do what is right for public education.

Groups supporting school choice and charter schools, among others, backed his candidacy for the post.

During his tenure, Corcoran aggressively asserted state control over many aspects of local schooling, as he led the State Board of Education to wield its rulemaking authority to accomplish things it hadn’t previously attempted.

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

That included threatening the Hillsborough County School Board over its plan to shutter four charter schools and recommending financial sanctions for a dozen districts because of their mask rules.

After making speeches nationally about the need to teach a traditional view of U.S. history, he led the State Board to implement a ban against “critical race theory” as DeSantis requested. On most education issues, Corcoran led the charge for the DeSantis administration.

That includes a revamp of state language arts and math standards, to complete a DeSantis promise to abolish the Common Core from Florida.

Former Democratic state Sen. Bill Montford, who heads the state superintendents association, said he could count on Corcoran to be honest and open to ideas.

“Richard Corcoran knows how to get things done. If you agreed with him on the issue, that’s a good thing,” Montford said. “If you’re an opponent, he’s a very tough opponent.”

Citrus County School Board member Thomas Kennedy, president-elect of the Florida School Boards Association, acknowledged that many people had concerns when Corcoran took the job. Over time, Kennedy said, Corcoran grew into the role and came to see the passion that school board members have for public education.

He praised Corcoran for his emphasis on “grace and compassion” during the pandemic, as well as his “clear vision” leading the education system as it struggled to find its way.

”He has navigated us through some difficult times, and I do believe our students are in a good position,” Kennedy said.

Corcoran said he was proud of what he had accomplished.

“I loved it,” he said. “And I loved working for the governor.”

• • •

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