Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson resigns

Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, shown with Gov. Rick Scott, wants to be closer to family.
Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, shown with Gov. Rick Scott, wants to be closer to family.
Published Aug. 1, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's top education official announced his resignation Tuesday, after a one-year run marred by a public outcry over testing, declining FCAT scores and charges that the state moved too fast this year to change its testing system.

In a letter submitted to Gov. Rick Scott, Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said it had been an honor to serve during an "unprecedented period in the history of school reform."

Robinson made no mention of recent criticism or missteps by the state Department of Education, instead alluding in his letter to the distance between him and his family in Virginia. His wife, a law professor, hadn't found a tenured position in Florida.

Robinson's resignation is effective Aug. 31.

Members of the state Board of Education, who now must find his replacement, said Tuesday that they were surprised by the announcement.

But Robert Martinez, vice chairman of the board and an occasional critic of Robinson's performance, said he respected Robinson's decision.

"Family is paramount. If I were him, I would do the same thing," he said.

Rumors have swirled for months that Robinson was on his way out. But Scott and the state board seemed to stand behind him.

On Tuesday, Scott called him a "tireless advocate for creating quality learning opportunities for all of Florida's students."

Kathleen Shanahan, chairwoman of the state board, said, "The board is extremely grateful for Gerard's leadership this past year."

Robinson became Florida's top education official in June 2011, after the resignation of former Commissioner Eric Smith, who had the job for about three years. Where Smith appeared to clash with the governor, Robinson was Scott's choice for the job. As Virginia's education secretary, Robinson had pushed school choice options, including vouchers, and said he supported merit pay for teachers.

As Florida's education commissioner, Robinson has been aggressive about pushing for higher academic standards and raising the bar on the state's standardized tests, moves that caused an unprecedented decline in tests scores and increased the number of D and F schools statewide. And in July, the state had to admit that more than 200 school grades were wrong — state officials had messed up their own grading formula.

Robinson has traveled statewide to public forums to quell rising frustration among many parents, teachers and school leaders. But he has been criticized heavily for sounding tone-deaf in the face of growing testing fatigue, blaming school districts — not the state — for the amount of testing in schools.

Rita Solnet, a Boca Raton activist who has played a prominent role in Florida's anti-testing movement, said she didn't view Robinson as a long-term leader but rather "he was the guy who was going to come in, execute the most egregious changes possible, be the fall guy and leave."

At a national teachers union conference in Detroit this past week, Solnet said comments were circulating that Robinson was on his way out because former Gov. Jeb Bush wanted to stem criticism against a testing system he helped create and still champions.

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"Complete bull," the former governor said in an email Tuesday, and wrote he was sorry Robinson was leaving.

Charlotte County School Board member Lee Swift was president of the Florida School Boards Association this summer when Robinson made remarks about the group's anti-testing resolution that many members found condescending. But Swift also said Robinson may have been unfairly criticized for problems with Florida's accountability system that occurred long before his arrival.

"What we have to focus on, I think, is really what happens in the future," Swift said. Robinson "was doing the bidding of the state Board of Education, and so it depends on what kind of message they want to send going out as to who comes in to replace him."

Shanahan said the seven-member board would work closely with the governor to select a new commissioner. Before the last selection, Scott called board members to lobby on Robinson's behalf. The vote took six minutes and it was unanimous.

MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools, has been floated in the past for the position. "People have talked to me about that job a number of times, and I'm still here in Hillsborough County," she said Tuesday, shortly after the School Board passed its own anti-testing resolution.

Elia, who appeared with Robinson at a public forum in Tampa recently, said she thought Robinson would be missed.

"He's done some very good work and much of the work may have caused some difficulties. He's working through issues. I think it's a loss for the state. He made great efforts to include superintendents' information and school districts' input in his decisions," she said.

Pinellas County School Board Chairwoman Robin Wikle said she, too, was disappointed by the news of Robinson's resignation, despite the fact that some view him as controversial.

"I would love to have consistency, someone to stay in that position and make the hard decisions," Wikle said.

Activists like Solnet said Robinson's resignation will not temper the concerns surrounding too much testing. The selection of Robinson's successor also will be closely watched, Solnet said.

"The problem is, if they think this is going to quell the outcry and the criticism and the issues, it's really not," she said, "unless they put someone in place who is willing to listen."

Times staff writers Dan Sullivan, Marlene Sokol and Rebecca Catalanello, staff researcher Caryn Baird and Mary Ellen Klas, staff writer in the Times/Tallahassee Bureau, contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at, (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.