A South Florida lawmaker with a long history on conservative education issues is Gov. Ron DeSantis’ choice to become the state’s next education commissioner.
Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, has led several education committees in the Florida Senate and Florida House. He has spearheaded legislation on several DeSantis legislative priorities on the topic, including school voucher expansions and the “individual freedoms” bill that deals with the teaching of race issues.
If confirmed, Diaz would lead the implementation of a laundry list of new policies that are key parts of DeSantis’ education agenda. He will oversee the implementation of a new progress monitoring test system for public school students called the Florida Assessment of Student Thinking, or FAST. It replaces the Florida Statewide Assessment tests for K-12 students.
He will also have a say on the approach of the newly-signed “Parental Rights in Education” law, dubbed by critics as the “don’t say gay” bill. The measure, signed by DeSantis, prohibits teachers from leading lessons on gender identity or sexual orientation in K-3rd grades and bans lessons for older students that aren’t “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
The State Board of Education would have to approve the governor’s recommendation.
“Manny Diaz has done a great job in the Legislature fighting for educational choice and keeping indoctrination out of our schools,” DeSantis said in a released statement. “I am confident that he will serve our state well as the Commissioner of Education.
Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced in March that he planned to step down by the end of April. He mentioned Diaz, a former teacher and administrator in district and charter schools, as a possible replacement at the time.
Thursday’s announcement raised concerns among critics of Florida’s current education direction.
“Sen. Diaz is someone who has been a fervent leader in privatization of public education,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “I’m concerned it’s going to be more of the same partisan weaponization of education.”
The recommendation drew praise from the other end of the political spectrum.
“I am confident Sen. Diaz is the right leader as we continue to implement historic school choice initiatives that will increase competition within our public school system,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, calling the choice “tremendous.”
Diaz is a top administrator at Doral College, a private college affiliated with Academica, a Miami-based for-profit corporation that provides administrative services to charter schools. He has held that post since 2013.
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Doral College was created in 2010 to offer advanced courses at charter schools, including Somerset Academy schools. Somerset Academy Inc. came under scrutiny earlier this year as it was coming off a five-year arrangement that put the struggling Jefferson County school system under its control. The arrangement was the first and only time Florida has had an all-charter school district.
Somerset’s contract was set to expire June 30, and it opted against extending the contract. The district is still facing “extreme turnover of instructional staff” and “extremely low proficiency” in math and reading among the majority of students, according to the company’s own assessment.
At the same time, the state Department of Education was found to have attempted to steer the multimillion dollar contract to a politically connected company whose CEO had ties to Corcoran.
When asked about the situation in January, Diaz told a WFSU reporter that the charter school experiment’s outcomes had other factors at play. “Number one, geographically it [Jefferson] really is far away and it’s difficult,” he said. Jefferson County is just east of Tallahassee and Leon County.
Diaz, whose political committee is called “Better Florida Education,” has been an advocate of school choice and charter schools during his time in the Legislature.
In January 2021, Diaz was accused by several former students at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High of acting inappropriately around girls while he was a teacher, including by making comments on girls’ appearances and talking to his students about doing ecstasy at Miami clubs. At the time, Diaz denied the allegations and said the attacks were politically motivated, “baseless and defamatory.”
Diaz taught social studies at Hialeah-Miami Lakes for four years starting in 1995 and went on to become an assistant principal there for two years.
Citrus County school superintendent Sandra “Sam” Himmel, president of the state superintendents association, said it appeared DeSantis has faith in Diaz, with whom she had no working relationship.
“I would fully expect the (State Board of Education) to have a discussion and do their own research ... once they get the recommendation sent to them,” Himmel said.
The board did not conduct a search for Corcoran, whom DeSantis also recommended. It did hold national searches that yielded commissioners Gerard Robinson and Tony Bennett during the Rick Scott administration.
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.
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