Pam Stewart named Florida education commissioner

Board of education members make decision amid Common Core squabble

(Photo courtesy of Flagler Live)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In the middle of her second stint as Florida's interim education commissioner, Pam Stewart was tapped Tuesday by the State Board of Education to take over the job on a permanent basis.

Stewart's appointment came amid jockeying over the future of education in Florida and rumors that Gov. Rick Scott will soon issue an executive order on schools, possibly dealing with the contentious issue of whether the state will go along with a multi-state test aimed at measuring new, national standards for learning.

The vote from the board comes roughly six weeks after the resignation of former Commissioner Tony Bennett in the wake of a controversy over school grades in Indiana when Bennett was the superintendent of public instruction in that state. Stewart was appointed unanimously after a brief discussion.

"Sometimes, timing is everything, and the time seems to be right now for Pam," said board member Barbara Feingold.

Board members also underscored the need for stability at the agency; Stewart will be the fourth non-interim commissioner to serve under Gov. Rick Scott since he took office in 2011. The state is also looking for a new chancellor for the university system.

"I appreciate the support of the board and I can assure you I am cognizant of the times we are in and the critical nature of the work," Stewart said in a statement released after the vote. "I've spent 32 years in public education and I remain fully committed to the students of Florida. This is the time to look forward and get this critical work right for our students."

Reminders of that work were all around Tuesday as the debate continued about the Common Core standards, a set of education benchmarks agreed to by the overwhelming majority of states.

Legislative leaders have already called for the state to develop its own tests based on the standards -- ditching months of work with other states on tests they all could use -- and at least one Republican lawmaker is agitating to slow down or even overturn the standards themselves.

With that in mind, the Foundation for Florida's Future met with reporters during the education board's meeting to promote the standards. The organization, founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, has been an influential voice supporting common core.

Executive Director Patricia Levesque said the organization was speaking up now in part because of where the state stands in putting the standards in place.

"This year is when every student at every grade level is going to be exposed to common core," she said.

Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, joined the call to show his support.

Looming over the discussion was the question of what Scott might address in an executive order he is reportedly developing. State Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan ripped into Scott on Tuesday morning for skipping an education summit he called recently and for failing to consult board members on the executive order.

"He should have sent a recommendation to the state board for action," Shanahan said. She added that Scott's actions were "embarrassing for him."

The governor's press office did not respond to a request for comment.

The board also approved a $16.8 billion budget request for the year that begins July 1. That is down $100 million from the current budget, though agency officials said that is because of a drop in federal grants. Per-student spending under the main formula for funding public schools would increase by almost 1.9 percent, or $126.77.

Scott and the Legislature will consider the request as they craft budget plans that will be voted on in the spring.