Like an old pinball machine about ready to tilt, Florida's Department of Education has been bouncing from crisis to crisis for more than a year. When the Board of Education appoints a new commissioner this week, he will become the fourth leader of the department since Gov. Rick Scott took office. After years of policy fights and mismanaged attempts at student and teacher accountability, Florida needs a commissioner who is more practical than political and ready to refocus on the classroom and broader issues than the latest FCAT scores.
Just this year, there have been a series of debacles tied to the very accountability on which Florida stakes its supposed educational competence. A few days ago, the department had to pull controversial teacher evaluation data off its website for revisions because much of it was wrong. In July, more than 200 schools statewide received incorrect grades from the state. And in May, after confusion about telling schools what was expected, the Board of Education had to change the FCAT scoring standards for writing, draining its credibility as an accountability tool.
The rocky tenure of the last commissioner, Gerard Robinson, lasted barely a year. Then the search for his replacement yielded such a weak pool that the state wisely chose to extend the application deadline. The damage done in such a short time without a firm hand on the rudder shows how important it is to pick a strong leader this time. There will be enough uncertainty as the state rolls out common core standards and more end-of-course exams, continues with teacher accountability and deals with uneven and uncertain funding.
The board will be interviewing these three candidates on Tuesday in Tampa. Each one deserves thorough questioning:
• Tony Bennett is the outgoing Indiana superintendent of public instruction. Question: The voters of Indiana just ousted you from your elected position, and you didn't apply for the Florida job until you lost the one you had. Why should Florida want what Indiana has rejected?
• Charles Hokanson, an education consultant, is a former deputy assistant U.S. secretary of education who was president of the Alliance for School Choice. He also served as one of now-House Speaker John Boehner's staff negotiators during negotiations over the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Question: You have had a great deal of involvement with policy. What about managing people?
• Randy Dunn, the former Illinois superintendent of education, is president of Kentucky's Murray State University. Question: It's true you have a range of experience that fits nicely with the job requirements, but you've been out of primary and secondary education for a while. Why should the board expect you to be able to handle the demands of Florida's K-12 and college system?
Bennett and Hokanson have aligned themselves with former Gov. Jeb Bush and his conservative style of education reform and school choice. At what point does the privatization of the public school system go too far? And what will you do to move the focus off of vouchers and back to the heart of Florida's future — its traditional public schools?
Florida's commissioner of education oversees education of Sunshine State students from kindergarten through high school as well as the Florida college system. It's a big job, and the need for a stable state leadership that rises above rigid ideology has never been greater. Too often in these selection processes, the fix already is in before the interviews. The board should be open-minded this week and pick the best qualified finalist, not the one with the best political connections.