TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a surprise turn, Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart has announced her resignation despite having a year left on her contract. That opened the door for Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis to appoint charter school advocate and former House Speaker Richard Corcoran to the job.
“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 release. "This issue is very personal to me. (Wife) Casey and I believe that the future of our children and the future of all Florida’s children depend on our education system. I know Richard will never stop fighting until every child in Florida has access to a world-class education.”
In his two-year term as House speaker, Corcoran shepherded several controversial education bills through the Legislature, including creating the Schools of Hope program, which recruits charter-school to open in communities where district schools have struggled academically.
Corcoran also created the Hope Scholarship program, a school voucher of up to $7,000 per student to attend private schools. That program was expanded last year to make scholarships available to students who claimed they were bullied at school.
When Corcoran ended his campaign for governor in May, he suggested his career in public office was coming to an end.
“I said all along, you know, I was going to run for governor or go home,” Corcoran said at the time.
But the political landscape changed with Stewart leaving her job early and a Republican governor looking for a new top education official.
“It's no secret that the new governor and the former speaker Corcoran are both staunch advocates of school choice,” said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
Corcoran is known for championing new voucher programs for private schools and diverting local tax money to charter schools.
“All of this legislation goes directly to what he says as his values, which are disrupting our education program,” said Martin Powell, chief of staff of the Florida Education Association.
The FEA also points to the fact that Corcoran lacks experience in public education, unlike Stewart who worked as a teacher, principal and administrator for 40 years.
“He is a threat not only to traditional public school advocates and the teachers' union, but to traditional schools,” said Powell.
The Southern Poverty Law Center released a statement opposing Corcoran's appointment.
"Richard Corcoran has a terrible track record of putting private interests over the needs of Florida’s children," SPLC policy council Scott McCoy said. "He has supported private school vouchers, which remove valuable resources from the public school system and strip students of important civil rights protections. Florida needs a Commissioner of Education who prioritizes the education and success of the more than 2.8 million children in Florida’s public schools. Florida’s children deserve better.”
In contrast, state Sen. Bill Montford, who also heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, is optimistic about Corcoran.
“He's very bright, he's energetic and he knows how to get things done,” Montford said.
Stewart will officially step down on Jan. 8, the same day DeSantis will be sworn into office.
Corcoran was in Washington, D.C., this week, attending a national convention held by an education think tank established by former Gov. Jeb Bush, another staunch advocate of school choice.