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  1. Opinion

Put down your pitchfork, and say hi to the new education commissioner

Then-Florida House Richard Corcoran speaks as the Republican leadership in the House and Senate lay out a school safety proposal in Tallahassee in February. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
Then-Florida House Richard Corcoran speaks as the Republican leadership in the House and Senate lay out a school safety proposal in Tallahassee in February. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
Published Dec. 21, 2018

To: Education commissioner Richard Corcoran

Dear Commissioner Corcoran,

Congratulations on your new position, and sorry for the hostile reception. I'm sure you were expecting some skepticism, but it's unusual to see pitchforks even before a paycheck.

One newspaper editorial has declared your hiring as the death of public education in Florida. Another suggested you were the wrong choice, and worried that public schools might be in trouble. A third newspaper described it as confirmation of Tallahassee's hostility toward public education.

It's almost as if they've skipped the opening curtain and gone straight to reviews.

As for me, I'm hoping for a plot twist.

Related: Corcoran unanimously approved as education commissioner

I'm hoping you stun them all, friends and foes alike. I'm hoping you are the disruptor that reformers want, and the hero that our schoolchildren have long awaited.

I guess what I'm saying is that I'm hoping for a miracle.

Because that's what it will take to elevate Florida's reputation. That's what it will take to erase the education gap. That's what it will take to persuade everyone to start moving in the same direction.

And I believe you are one of the rare people who can pull it off.

Your passion for education reform has never been in doubt. Nor has your determination and knack for getting things done. I'll even allow that many of your ideas, which I disagreed with, had merit.

The problem has always been your approach. As a state representative and later as House speaker, you were woefully lacking in humility and perspective. You were convinced that your philosophies were all that mattered, and you fought with a bare-knuckle, unapologetic and, even, devious style.

You often won, but your victories came at a cost. To put it simply, but accurately, education in Florida has become a battleground.

You stand on one side with those who believe privatization should play a larger role. On the other side are the educators who fear public education is being demonized and eroded.

And in the middle are the children.

I wish you had been at the Pasco County School Board meeting down the road from your home Tuesday night. You would have seen some of the results, both good and bad, of recent state policies.

The board considered — and ultimately rejected — closing Lacoochee Elementary, an oft-struggling school in an economically depressed neighborhood. Enrollment has declined at Lacoochee because many parents have taken advantage of the state's choice programs to move their children to other schools. That's a good thing. Parents should have the option to find a school they have confidence in.

But, as many other parents who came and spoke eloquently at the meeting showed, these policies can lead to unintended consequences. Closing Lacoochee and bussing hundreds of children seven miles away to another school is far from an ideal solution.

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It would mean potentially overcrowded portable classrooms along with more time spent on a bus. It would be a hardship for parents with limited transportation options to be active participants at the school. It would rob a struggling community of a needed cultural touchstone and identity.

This is one of the fundamental problems of dissing public education. Charter and private schools can be fantastic, and have roles to play in our educational system. But what becomes of the children whose parents cannot, or will not, afford the commitments and sacrifices often required at non-traditional schools? And what's the solution if charter corporations stay away from depressed neighborhoods?

Public schools should not be portrayed as an afterthought or last resort.

And yet, by obsessively focusing on privatization, that's the message being sent to millions of parents around the state.

Trust me, Commissioner Corcoran, I understand it's a delicate balance that must be maintained. And I realize it must be frustrating to get pushback from so many corners when you're advocating for something innovative.

But this doesn't always have to be a fight. And, in your new position, you can bring together the hopes and concerns of people on both sides of the issue.

There is a great opportunity in front of you to change the perception of Florida education. To provide choices for parents. To raise academic standards. To provide teachers with encouragement and support instead of threats and ultimatums. There is an opportunity for a hero.

Good luck, sir.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.