New faces will lead on education issues in the Legislature, but who?

Senate President Joe Negron, left, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran say there’s a lot they want to do in regards to education in 2017.
Senate President Joe Negron, left, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran say there’s a lot they want to do in regards to education in 2017.
Published Oct. 19, 2016

Over the last four years, education bills outnumbered nearly all other topics before Florida lawmakers.

The 2017 session could offer more of the same, as the Legislature is expected to tackle keenly watched issues including recess, testing and choice.

"There's a lot we want to do," said House Speaker Richard Corcoran. "Competition in the K-12 space, based on actual results, we'll expand in that regard."

Senate President Joe Negron, meanwhile, has made no secret of his desire to improve the state's colleges and universities.

For the first time in a while, new leaders will guide the conversations. Term limits and retirements claimed nearly all the last session's education committee chairs — most of whom had been in place for years.

A spokeswoman for Negron said he's deep into conversations with senators about their interest in policy areas, ahead of making appointments after the Nov. 8 election. Corcoran said he's given a lot of thought to his choices for his leadership team, who he intends to let pick subcommittee chairs.

He anticipated having the slots filled by the winter holidays.

That leaves plenty of time to predict who might take the reins.

"There is surprisingly little that anyone knows," said Ruth Melton, governmental affairs director for the Florida School Boards Association. "But there's lots of speculation."

In the Senate, Lakeland Republican Kelli Stargel's name regularly pops up as a top contender to run education policy if she wins reelection.

A Negron ally, Stargel has offered a consistent, conservative voice on education matters since her first term in the House. Last session, she won a lengthy battle to overhaul student-athlete transfer rules.

She's also a staunch supporter of school choice and charter schools. But she's also been involved in a variety of issues, including abortion and alimony.

As such, Stargel said she's "open to other areas." Most senators have an interest in education matters, Stargel observed, and given the chance to chair the panel, they'd all do well.

She listed Pinellas County Republican Jeff Brandes, who has championed individual course choice and online schooling; Manatee County Republican Bill Galvano, a recent chairman of education appropriations; and Seminole County Republican David Simmons, the chief proponent of longer days for low-performing schools.

Term-limited former Senate president Don Gaetz, who headed education appropriations in 2016, expected the panels to carry critical legislation, because both presiding officers have set education as a priority.

He agreed Stargel is likely to play an important role, and said Brandes could become pivotal. He also mentioned senators Lizbeth Benacquisto and Anitere Flores as possible players.

"As to the individual members in the Senate, there is no one who understands education better than Sen. (Bill) Montford," Gaetz said.

The Tallahassee Democrat also heads the state superintendents association, which has opposed some key Republican legislation on testing and accountability. But Gaetz expected Montford, last year's vice chairman of education appropriations, to wield influence regardless.

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Former senator John Legg, who chaired education policy in the Senate and House before retiring, agreed Montford will play a role in education, but doubted he would win a top leadership spot.

He offered a few other names, adding credence to Stargel's view that many members might step into the spots. Two still vying for their Senate seats are Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who ran education in the House under Marco Rubio, and Vero Beach Republican Debbie Mayfield, a vocal Common Core opponent while in the House.

"I would like to be the chairman and head the effort, but I'll be coming in as a freshman," Mayfield said. "Wherever president Negron would like me to be."

On the House side, Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Miami Republican, could be the only returning education chairman from last session.

But the former school administrator and charter school advocate faces a tough reelection battle, Melton noted, which could complicate his chances.

Former K-12 committee chair Janet Adkins, a who left the House to run for Nassau County superintendent, suggested Lake County Republican Elizabeth Porter could become a leader.

Other names being bandied about included Pinellas County Republican Chris Sprowls, who authored the state's new interdistrict open enrollment law; and Miami-Dade Republican Michael Bileca, a proponent of education savings accounts.

Corcoran hinted that "more innovative" people could land in charge of education in the House, noting that many new members will come into seats in November.

"The people that are chosen these two years in the House and the Senate probably will be influential in education for quite a while," he said. "I think it's a positive thing."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or Follow @jeffsolochek.