Florida newspapers have not been beating around the bush about where they think public education is headed in the Sunshine State under Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis and the new education leadership team installed in the state capital.
“Rest in peace, public education,” said a headline in the St. Augustine Record.
DeSantis, a fervent supporter of President Trump and recipient of campaign donations from the family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, appointed Richard Corcoran, the former speaker of the Florida House, as state education secretary. On Monday, the Board of Education dutifully approved him.
Corcoran is seen by advocates for public education as being hostile to traditional public schools, using his legislative perch to advance the interests of charter schools — one of which was started by his wife in Pasco County. He once called teacher unions “evil.”
Corcoran is part of the school “reform” wing that includes DeVos and her ally, Jeb Bush (R), who was Florida’s governor from 1999 to 2007. He was a national pioneer in promoting the “school choice” movement that seeks to expand charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — and programs that use public money to pay for private and religious education in schools. Bush retains some influence on education policy in Florida through his education foundation and connections to Republican legislators.
Let’s not beat around the political bush: Putting former House Speaker Richard Corcoran in charge of Florida education is like hiring Genghis Khan to head the state Department of Corrections.
The charter school fox is heading for the Department of Education hen house and, for public schooling, that’s finger-lickin’ bad.
Corcoran is a coercer, a brawler and politician who rewards fealty while marking opponents for payback. Those who know him would say he’d be flattered by the description.
Then there’s the new head of the Florida House Education Committee, Jennifer Sullivan. A commentary in the Orlando Sentinel said Sullivan has no experience or expertise to actually do the policy job:
Sullivan, 27, a Mount Dora Republican whose district covers north Orange County and most of Lake, was home-schooled. She lived with her mom and worked as a tea room waitress and babysitter before she was elected.
What little education she may have beyond a high school diploma is a muddle. She has claimed through the House Speaker’s communications director — poor dear thing can’t answer simple questions on her own — that she has more credits than the evangelical Christian universities where she was enrolled will confirm. So far, she has provided no documentation.
The state Senate Education Committee chair will be Sen. Manny Diaz (R), who used to work for a Miami charter school company. Sen. Kelli Stargel, who strongly supports charter schools and using public money for private and religious school tuition, will head the education subcommittee on appropriations.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel’s editorial was only slightly less pointed than the St. Augustine Record was about Corcoran, who is an attorney, a former chief of staff for Sen. Marco Rubio (R) and an ally of Bush.
Under the headline, “Richard Corcoran wrong for public schools, right for GOP," it said: “Richard Corcoran for state education commissioner? Sure. Why not make Tallahassee’s hostility to public education even more apparent?”
The governor-elect has echoed DeVos — who once called traditional public schools “a dead end” — in making clear that his focus will not be on the traditional school districts, which the vast majority of students attend. He’s a big supporter of charter schools and vouchers or voucher-like programs.
Four members of DeVos’s extended family, it was reported, donated a total of $200,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC on Oct. 11. The family members, who own homes in Florida, include DeVos’s husband.
Corcoran used his position as House speaker to pass legislation strongly favoring charters. Last year, he pushed through HB 7069, a measure creating a “Schools of Hope” system that encourages charter schools to open near struggling traditional public schools. The legislation also made it harder for school systems to use federal funding to help needy students. He also successfully passed legislation that requires school districts to share capital funding that they raise from local taxes with charters.
The Sun Sentinel editorial quoted former Palm Beach County schools superintendent Robert Avossa as calling the “Schools of Hope” bill “the single largest piece of legislation to dismantle public education that I’ve ever seen.” And then the editorial goes on to say: “True, but HB7069 simply extended the attack on public education by Republicans since they took control in Tallahassee two decades ago.”
That’s a reference to the era of Republican rule under Bush. The former governor is a strong ally of DeVos, who often points to Florida’s embrace of charter schools and voucher-like programs as a model for the nation, though many see education in Florida as being in disarray.
For years, Florida has had one of the highest annual charter school closure rates in the country, involving schools that were closed after financial and other scandals. As for the billions of taxpayer dollars Florida has put into voucher-like programs, there is no evidence the private and religious schools receiving the money have boosted students’ academic trajectories.