Turning point for public eduction in Florida

Published Aug. 1, 2012

There is a serious leadership void in public education in Florida and Tampa Bay, and if wise choices for key positions aren't made soon it could get worse. Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson's abrupt resignation this week following the FCAT testing debacle means the state will have its third education commissioner in less than two years. The search for a new school superintendent in Pinellas has produced an uninspiring list of finalists and should start fresh. The direction of Pasco County's school system hinges on the outcome of the Aug. 14 election of a new superintendent, and in Hillsborough County several challengers in School Board races are actually running against reforms that are working.

It's depressing, but this vacuum also presents opportunities.

Robinson is a slick salesman with no Florida roots or love for public education, and he won't be missed. On his rocky one-year watch, the credibility of standardized testing collapsed completely, marred by ever-changing standards and ridiculous mistakes in assigning school grades. His explanations and excuses were not good enough, and the commissioner of public education should not be more interested in expanding private school tuition vouchers than in improving public schools.

His resignation puts pressure on Gov. Rick Scott and the Board of Education to make a better choice this time. Florida needs a commissioner who believes in public education and in credible accountability that informs rather than punishes. But the troubles in Tallahassee are only the tip of the iceberg.

In Pinellas, the School Board insists on bringing in superintendent candidates that the board itself views as lackluster. There is still time to do the search right and look nationwide for quality candidates instead of settling for second-tier quality.

In Pasco, a dispirited district faces more teacher furloughs and accusations that the superintendent's staff politicked on taxpayer time and coerced employees to back incumbent Heather Fiorentino. Fortunately, voters have a better choice in Kurt Browning, the former secretary of state, who has a record of competent, no-nonsense leadership.

In Hillsborough, reform is working due to the collaborative efforts of the teachers' union, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, the School Board and the huge infusion of cash from the Gates grant. But some candidates for the board are running against the reform efforts because they view them as punitive and a waste of money. The district needs to make the teacher evaluation process more deliberative and transparent — but those improvements are evolving. The challengers should be talking up how to strengthen these reforms instead of talking down the effort itself.

This is a pivotal time for public education in Florida. It's time to embrace bright, progressive leaders who want to improve it rather than privatize it.