Public school advocates don’t like what they see and hear coming out of Tallahassee.
Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis’s selection of Richard Corcoran as his choice to be the next Education Commissioner and the appointment of two pro-charter school lawmakers – with questionable credentials, according to their critics – have led public education allies on the left and right to sound the alarm.
DeSantis praised Corcoran as a no-nonsense reformer who will bring experience and passion as leader of the Department of Education. Florida budgets more than $20 billion to educate 2 million children every year. Corcoran championed alternatives to traditional public schools as a lawmaker and Speaker of the Florida House.
His record aligns with DeSantis’s campaign talking points.
“Gov-elect DeSantis is committed to protecting parents’ right to make decisions about their child’s education,” said spokesman David Vasquez. “To achieve those outcomes, he will welcome innovation and flexibility.”
Corcoran’s innovations were the foundations of two large contentious education bills he pushed through the Legislature in 2017 and 2018. The measures diverted tax dollars to the charter school industry, expanded a voucher program for private schools and exempted charter schools from regulations imposed on school districts.
Critics complained the charter-school industry’s gains came at the expense of public schools.
“That is a trend we’ve seen the last couple of years; whether it continues is ultimately up to the Legislature,” said Linda Kearschner, president of the Florida PTA.
House Speaker Jose Oliva signaled he intends to continue to move education policy in the direction Corcoran steered it. He named Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, the House Education Committee chair.
The 27-year-old Sullivan was homeschooled and worked as a waitress before she was elected. Her educational background is unclear. In the House, Sullivan has been an ally to conservative education groups, supported tax credit scholarships and said she’s committed to “giving parents choice in the education of their children.”
Beth Overholt of Opt-out Leon, an organization opposed to the emphasis on standardized tests, said Sullivan is unqualified and will serve as a rubber stamp for Republican leaders.
“She doesn’t even have a college degree; let’s be clear about that,” said Overholt. “She should not have been appointed. She will just follow the kind of reforms that have hurt education in the past decade.”
Sullivan’s counterpart in the Senate is Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Miami-Dade. Diaz has a graduate degree in educational leadership and has worked for a charter school firm. He led the House education appropriations committee and promoted choice options and a state-level charter school institute.
“We have a group here that is publicly determined to tear apart public education and privatize it,” said Sue Legg, the past chair of an education committee for the League of Women Voters Florida and who writes an education blog from her Gainesville home.
Senate President Bill Galvano said the Legislature has made great strides in the effort to create choices for parents, but he quickly adds Florida needs to provide adequate support for traditional schools.
But Speaker Oliva encouraged House members to get out of parents’ way when it comes to education policy.
“If you have come here to ensure every child receives the best education possible, remove the restrictions that stole the futures of generations of our poorest children by forcing them to go to failing schools,” said Oliva to the House during a November meeting.
Groups like the PTA, The Tea Party Network, League of Women Voters and Opt-out see battle lines being drawn for the 2019 session.
Overholt wonders if she is watching a conspiracy to privatize public education unfold with the recent appointments and the Corcoran recommendation.
“Look, you start by not funding schools. Then you manufacture a teachers crisis and designed accountability measures to say our schools are failing,” explained Overholt. “The narrative becomes public schools are bad. Let’s get rid of them with vouchers.”
Public school advocates will watch the Senate with added interest this session. Galvano appointed two vocal supporters of traditional schools to serve on the education committee with Diaz. Sen. David Simmons, R- Seminole, is a past education chair. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, is the committee’s vice chair.
Montford said he is not given to conspiracy theories, but he confessed he wonders “what is the end game supposed to be?”
“If we don’t change the course which we are on, the traditional public school as we know it is threatened,” said Montford.
The former middle-school teacher, high school principal and school superintendent wants a review of the reforms adopted the past decade and a sorting of what worked and what didn’t.
“It’s time to take a breather and see what the impact has been,” said Montford, who added a dual education system has arisen in the wake of the Legislature’s work.
“One is generously funded, and one is not. The traditional public school system is not funded as well as a generation ago nor does the prospect look good now,” said Montford.
That is the discussion Montford wants to have for the 2019 legislative session. And it’s the kind of talk that the citizens-based groups interested in education want to hear.
“We look forward to sharing our ideas on education policy,” said Kearschner about the upcoming session. “And it is incumbent upon every voter, every citizen and every parent to remain engaged and watchful to make sure that their voices are heard.”
Reporter James Call can be reached at email@example.com.