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Under Charter School Advocate, What's The Future Of Education In Florida?

Richard Corcoran

During his campaign for governor, Ron DeSantis credited Republican education reform efforts like charter schools and private school vouchers for improving schools across Florida.

Now he’ll have an education commissioner who appears set to seek to expand those efforts. On Monday, the State Board of Education unanimously approved former Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran to serve in the position. DeSantis recommended Corcoran earlier this month.

In his new role role, Corcoran will be in charge of representing Florida's public education system.

The appointment has elicited mixed reactions: While many supporters of charter schools are thrilled with the new commissioner, advocates of improving public schools have expressed disappointment. They say that Corcoran's efforts seek to take away resources that have traditionally gone to public schools. 

More than 80 percent of Florida’s students attend public schools.

“Speaker Corcoran in our opinion was not a friendly policy maker for public eduction,” Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, said Friday on The Florida Roundup. "His track record is not one that gives us any optimism.”

Corcoran, who hails from Pasco County and whose wife runs a charter school, pushed hard for charter schools during his eight years in the Legislature. Over the past two years as speaker of the House, Corcoran helped pass laws that expanded charter schools and allowed them to access more public tax money, and that weakened teacher's unions.

Erika Donalds, a member of the governor-elect’s education transition committee, said Friday on the Florida Roundup that she expects to see the state continue to "expand choice" and "competition" under Corcoran. 

Corcoran was a major proponent of House Bill 7069, a major education overhaul that was signed by Gov. Rick Scott in the spring of 2017. Among its provisions was a requirement for public schools to share millions of dollars in taxpayer funding with charter schools.

It also created the “Schools of Hope” program, which makes it easier for charter schools to open in low-income areas through government subsidies.

When the bill was passed, Corcoran called it "the greatest educational K-12 policy that we've passed in the history of the state."

Earlier this year, Corcoran also championed the "Hope Scholarship" program, which allows public school students who are bullied to transfer to other private schools with discounted tuition.

“As a parent, as someone who has been a bit of a disrupter of the status quo myself, I like that our state is going in the direction of expanding parental choice, and that Richard has really led the charge on that," Donalds said.

But she disagreed with the idea that Corcoran supports money being "diverted" from public to private or charter schools. Instead, she said his philosophy is to allow parents "more power and autonomy over their own child's education.”

"Parents should be the ultimate decision-makers as to which educational environment will work best for their child," she said. "If that's a traditional public school in the neighborhood - great. If it's a magnet school - great. If it's a charter school, or a private school - we should put those decisions in the hands of the people who know those children best, and that is the parents."

DeSantis has pledged to spend 80 percent of the K-12 education budget "in the classroom," but details around that remain unclear. About half of school employees work outside the classroom. 

Ingram, who is a high school band director by trade, said public school advocates are interpreting DeSantis' pledge as the government telling local communities, parents, superintendants and school boards what they can do and how. 

"That’s not right. Our school system should be about local control," he said. "Each community is different and they should be given the latitude to do that. We want more money into education and then we want those levers of power to be as close to the students as humanely possible."

After campaigning aggressively against Corcoran's appointment, this week Ingram invited Corcoran to visit schools and sit with his leadership team to talk issues. Corcoran agreed.

Ingram said that has provided public school advocates with hope.

"There seems to be a slightly less aggressive tone," Ingram said. "We look forward to continued, meaningful dialogue that is going to be about the success of students." 

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