By Lloyd Dunkelberger, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Signaling that he will be open to the expansion of non-traditional school programs, Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis on Thursday said he wants former House Speaker Richard Corcoran to be the state’s next education commissioner.
DeSantis, the newly elected Republican governor, said he will ask the state Board of Education to appoint Corcoran, who used his two years as House leader to promote the use of charter schools and publicly funded vouchers to send students to private schools. Corcoran would succeed Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, a veteran educator who will step down on Jan. 8.
“Richard is known as a no-nonsense reformer whose sole focus has been how best to support students, parents and teachers,” DeSantis said in a statement.
DeSantis, whose term begins Jan. 8, said the selection of the new commissioner to oversee a state education system, which has 2.8 million students, “is very personal” to him and his wife Casey, who are the parents of two toddlers.
“I know Richard will never stop fighting until every child in Florida has access to a world-class education,” he said.
DeSantis’ announcement to back Corcoran is in line with his campaign pledge to expand school “choice” options and to put more money directly into classrooms. He also wants the K-12 system to develop a curriculum that will teach students about the U.S. Constitution.
Marva Johnson, chairwoman of the seven-member Board of Education, said she looks forward to reviewing DeSantis’ recommended appointment for the next commissioner.
“He has the knowledge and experience to ensure continued success at the Department of Education and to protect Florida’s legacy as a national leader in education,” Johnson said of Corcoran.
On Thursday, DeSantis named Johnson as one of the leaders of a 41-member education transition committee to advise the new governor on policy impacting the entire education system, including public schools, state colleges, state universities and technical schools. Mori Hosseini, a University of Florida trustee, will be a co-chairman of the panel, along with Johnson.
Corcoran, a lawyer and Republican from Pasco County, secured the passage of two major education bills during his 2016-18 tenure as speaker.
In the 2017 session, Corcoran successfully advanced legislation to allow the creation of charter schools, known as “schools of hope,” near struggling public schools. Earlier this year, he backed a bill that created “hope scholarships,” allowing bullied students to use publicly funded vouchers to transfer to private schools. The legislation also expanded vouchers used by disabled students and students who are struggling readers.
Both laws are now being challenged in court.
In contrast to Stewart, who has nearly four decades as a teacher, principal and education administrator, Corcoran has scant direct experience in the education system, although his wife, Anne, helped create a charter school in their community.
Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, urged the state Board of Education to conduct a nationwide search for a new education commissioner rather than endorse the selection of Corcoran.
Ingram said Corcoran has not made public schools “a priority” and “has expanded tax-funded private school vouchers and presided over a starvation budget” for public schools.
“His focus is privatization of our schools,” Ingram said in a statement. “As public school teachers and education staff professionals, we put students at the center of everything we do. Politicians can’t be a champion for students and at the same time be at war with educators and public schools.”
But former Gov. Jeb Bush, who led an education-reform movement that included the expanded use of vouchers to send low-income students to private schools, endorsed DeSantis’ decision to back Corcoran.
“Richard is one of the state’s most experienced leaders and has long been a trailblazer in education reform,” Bush said in a statement.
Bush said Corcoran “will fearlessly challenge the entrenched status quo” and “is a passionate advocate for expanding opportunity, especially for children most at risk.”