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Florida could have tough time snagging a new education commissioner

Three commissioners and two interim commissioners have gone through the state Department of Education in Gov. Rick Scott's 31 months.
Three commissioners and two interim commissioners have gone through the state Department of Education in Gov. Rick Scott's 31 months.
Published Aug. 2, 2013

Here we go again.

For the third time in two years, Florida needs a new education commissioner.

"This is a disappointment that we are having to face this same leadership challenge again," said Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who added that she isn't interested in the job and doesn't know anyone who is.

Despite its national reputation in school reform circles, Florida hasn't found it easy to attract — or keep — a leader since Gov. Rick Scott took office. Three commissioners and two interim commissioners have gone through the state Department of Education in Scott's 31 months. Tony Bennett, a rising star in education reform, lasted six months. His predecessor, Gerard Robinson, was on the job for one year.

That track record could make it tough for Florida to recruit top-tier candidates.

"Good luck with that," said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, who called Bennett's departure a "big loss for Florida."

Andy Smarick, former deputy education commissioner for New Jersey and a player in reform circles, said the constant churn sends the wrong signal.

"People qualified to be state chiefs take very seriously the political environment in the states they are considering," he said. "They know changes in elections, changes in state boards, can leave them quickly without a job. That's an issue."

Florida's Board of Education is expected to name K-12 chancellor Pam Stewart the interim commissioner Friday. She served in the role before Bennett's selection in December. Stewart declined to comment Thursday.

In at least one corner of the state, the idea of returning the decision to voters has increasing appeal. The last elected commissioner was Charlie Crist.

"If our state's voters can be entrusted with going to the polls and electing the Florida commissioner of agriculture, then certainly they should be able to elect the state's education commissioner," Sharon Glickman, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said in a statement.

State Sens. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, and Greg Evers, R-Baker, proposed just that last year, but the idea died in committee.

In many ways, the top job has been a tough sell since Scott ushered out former Commissioner Eric Smith in 2011.

A search for Smith's replacement attracted mostly second-tier candidates. Robinson, Virginia's secretary of education, eventually was selected. He resigned abruptly after a rocky year spent defending the state's accountability system against a public outcry over dramatic drops in test scores.

Yet another search brought another lackluster pool of candidates. After the search was extended, Bennett lost his re-election bid as Indiana's education commissioner and Florida quickly hired him.

With Bennett gone, state board member John Colon said he expects the board to move ahead with a national search for a full-time replacement.

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Cheryl Etters, spokeswoman for the Education Department, said there's no information on how a search will proceed.

Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, whose name has been floated for the job before, took a more optimistic view than most. He doesn't think the state will have trouble attracting good candidates.

"The fact that this is a significant challenge makes it attractive to remarkable leaders," he said.

Asked if he wanted the job, however, Carvalho said no. He has a contract until 2020.

Times/Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.