Florida taps former House Speaker Richard Corcoran for top education post

Posted at 3:58 PM, Dec 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-17 15:58:10-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida is turning to a longtime Republican politician who has openly clashed with the state's teacher union to be the state's next education commissioner.

The State Board of Education, in a unanimous vote Monday, chose former House Speaker Richard Corcoran to take over the job in February. Corcoran, an attorney, just concluded a two-year term as House speaker and has ties to both former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

The choice of the 53-year-old Corcoran wasn't a surprise since he had won the backing earlier this month of Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis for the post currently held by Commissioner Pam Stewart.

But the decision drew fire from Democrats and other public education advocates who had asked the appointed board to conduct a national search for Stewart's successor. They are also skeptical of Corcoran, who has no professional experience in education, because as House speaker he pushed to expand the use of private school vouchers and to create a program designed to spur the growth of more charter schools.

Corcoran once called the Florida Education Association "downright evil" for suing to block a voucher program that helps 100,000 children, many of them from low-income families. On Monday, he tried to downplay his past combativeness.

"I am product of the traditional public school system and an advocate for the traditional public school system, and I'm an advocate for choice," said Corcoran.

Still, Corcoran acknowledged that he is impatient about the need to change Florida's schools to deal with the "disruption" that is going on in the workforce. His selection as commissioner signals a marked departure from Stewart, a former teacher and veteran education official who generally ceded the spotlight on education issues to Gov. Rick Scott and was usually careful about asserting her own viewpoints while dealing with the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Federick Ingram, the president of the FEA, said the group was "disappointed" with Corcoran's selection, but expressed hope that he would at least be open to talking to the union about issues such as raising teacher salaries.

"If you don't bring all stakeholders to the table, then our children are in the balance," Ingram said.

Terrie Rizzo, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, sharply criticized the selection saying that Corcoran's "legacy consists of demonizing educators, and giving money to unaccountable, for-profit charter schools."

"As education commissioner he will continue his mission of destroying our public school system," Rizzo said.

Before the state board approved his selection, Corcoran was asked publicly by one board member if he had ever gotten paid from anyone in the charter school industry. He was also asked about his wife Anne Corcoran, who helped create a charter school in Pasco County. Richard Corcoran maintained that neither he nor his wife had a made a "penny" from their support of charter schools.

Corcoran said his priorities as commissioner includes carrying out DeSantis's education promises, such as expanding alternatives to traditional public schools, widening the availability of vocational education and examining parts of Florida's education standards and curriculum. DeSantis criticized the state for relying on Common Core as a framework for its school standards even though the change was put in place by other Republicans.

Corcoran will succeed Stewart in January. Stewart had planned to remain on the job for several more months, but changed her plans once DeSantis backed Corcoran.

State officials have not yet negotiated a salary for Corcoran. Stewart is paid $276,000 a year, while Corcoran's most recent financial disclosure showed that he earned $215,000 last year.