(The Center Square) – Florida’s education system is embroiled in partisan rancor with lawsuits and the state’s on-again, off-again policy against face-mask mandates – it’s on again via a Friday order by the First District Court of Appeal – creating confusion and political angst over pandemic protocols.
In the center of it all is Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. He is a former four-term Republican House representative and Speaker of the House nominated by Governor Ron DeSantis and confirmed by the state’s Board of Education (BOE) in January 2019.
A school choice champion, Corcoran’s appointment was opposed by teachers’ unions and academic advocacy groups because he has no background in education but a penchant for pushing partisan conservative causes.
Now, nearly three years later, Tampa-area Democrats say Corcoran has delivered just that with such transparent abundance, that they believe Florida voters will sign onto their effort to again make education commissioner a statewide-elected position and the fifth member of the Florida Cabinet.
Florida voters – not the governor – should determine who leads the state’s Department of Education (DOE), which has a $22.8 billion budget to educate nearly 2.9 million K-12 students this fiscal year, they contend.
House Joint Resolution 77, filed Sept. 9 by State Representative Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, calls for lawmakers to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2022 ballot asking voters if they want state education commissioner to be elected beginning in 2026 and added to the Florida Cabinet.
“Floridians deserve the right to vote for who is leading our education system,” Driskell said at a Thursday press conference. “It’s time to let the people of Florida have a say in their child’s education by electing a champion of education to lead the way and to be able to hold them accountable at the ballot box.”
Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, who has sponsored similar bills, said she’d support the measure in the Senate.
“Voters currently have no direct influence on state education policy, and this bill seeks to put an end to that,” Cruz said. “Locally elected education officials are having democratically decided policies overwritten by an unelected and unaccountable commissioner of education.”
Citing punitive measures approved and levied by the BOE at Corcoran’s behest against school districts that don’t adhere to DeSantis’ order against mandatory school mask mandates, State Representative Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said Florida voters want to see policy, not politics, from education officials.
“I think it’s a very, very sad day when you have a commissioner who says ‘I will take away your ability to earn a paycheck because you’re trying to do what’s right,’” Hart said.
Under the 1968 Florida Constitution revision, the education commissioner was an elected position and sat on the Governor’s Cabinet. A 1998 constitutional amendment reorganized the DOE, created the BOE and made the education commission an appointed post beginning January 2003.
Charlie Crist, a Democratic Florida U.S. House Representative seeking the party’s nod to challenge DeSantis in 2022 was the last elected education commissioner, serving from 2001-03, before being elected attorney general in 2003-07 and governor in 2006 – all as a Republican.
HJR 77 must be approved in both chambers in 60% majorities to get on the ballot, where it also needs a 60% majority to be adopted. With Republicans dominating the statehouse, the bill’s prospects are not good.
While Democrats say making commissioner an elected position would diminish politics in education, Florida Republicans say making school board elections partisan again would make reality transparent.
In 1988, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to make school board elections nonpartisan.
State Reps. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, and Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, on August 12 co-filed HJR 35, which asks lawmakers to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2022 ballot to make local school board elections partisan again.