Education commissioner steps down
By RON MATUS
Published January 12, 2007
Education Commissioner John Winn, a leading architect of Jeb Bush’s education overhaul and a lightning rod for his policies, resigned unexpectedly Friday, opening the door for new Gov. Charlie Crist to put his own stamp on Florida schools.
Bush picked Winn, 58, to be Florida’s education czar in 2004. But Winn, a former teacher, already had spent years playing a behind-the-scenes role crafting everything from Bush’s school-grading system to the elimination of race-based admissions in Florida universities.
Friday’s out-of-the-blue announcement followed weeks of heated speculation that Crist wanted him gone. It also came just two days after Crist recalled the appointments of two Bush loyalists on the state Board of Education, which appointed Winn.
“Having the honor to have served as Florida’s education commissioner for the past two years has surpassed any of my expectations,” Winn said in a news release.
He declined an interview request. His resignation is effective Feb. 28.
Crist said in the same release that Winn “has been a leader in raising the bar for student achievement and making Florida’s schools more accountable.” Educators like him, he continued, “are essential to world-class education.”
A Crist spokeswoman said Winn was not forced out. But Bush critics said the commissioner’s departure is a strong signal that Crist, who is something of a wild card on education, is willing to deviate from his predecessor’s policies.
Bush’s test-heavy accountability system was never popular with the public despite some evidence of success, especially in the early grades.
Winn was “Jeb’s Donald Rumsfeld,” said Jim Warford, a former high-ranking education official who butted heads with Winn.
It’s unclear how soon a replacement will be found, or how extensive the search will be. Several names already have been floated, including Pasco Superintendent Heather Fiorentino, Manatee Superintendent Roger Dearing and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.
Baker said he met with Crist in November to discuss possible jobs, but is not interested. “I still have work to do here,” he said.
Fiorentino would not say whether Crist or his staff had spoken to her, and Dearing could not be reached for comment. But both officials have been contacted recently by the governor’s people, according to the chairmen of their respective school boards.
A 1998 constitutional amendment gives the power to appoint a new commissioner to the seven-member Board of Education. Given the members’ staggered terms, Winn said several times in the past 18 months that he would keep serving, no matter who was elected governor.
But the ground shifted suddenly this week, when Crist recalled the appointments of board members Phil Handy and T. Willard Fair, who Bush had re-appointed shortly before the election and who had not yet been confirmed by the state Senate.
Two other board members, Kathleen Shanahan and Roberto Martinez, helped lead Crist’s transition team, leading some political observers to speculate that Crist would soon have a board majority to force Winn’s hand.
Crist’s office indicated the new governor, like Bush, will have a significant role in selecting a new commissioner.
“He’ll approach that the same way he’s approached everything else, to search for the best and brightest,” said Erin Isaac, Crist’s spokeswoman.
Before he was named commissioner, Winn served as Bush’s point man on education policy. Former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan described him as “a master technician.” Handy called him “the most authentic commissioner of education Florida has ever had.”
Slim and intense, Winn began his education career as a teacher in an all-black elementary school in rural Putnam County. In 1984, he assumed a low-level administrative job at the Department of Education and quickly rose through the ranks. He served under seven education commissioners and became known for 16-hour work days before being tapped for the top job.
Then he became the public face of a Bush agenda critics called arrogant and ideologically driven.
Many educators complained they were left out of the loop when Winn and the rest of the Bush team forged polices that affected them, especially high stakes use of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to grade schools and retain students.
On Friday, a teachers union official said teachers statewide were breathing a sigh of relief. And one state representative said the news made her want to skip through the halls of the Capitol.
“Draconian measures imposed on teachers has been the philosophy for years,” said Rep. Shelley Vana, a Democrat from Palm Beach County and a former teachers union president. “It’s refreshing that (now) there might be a chance for some input.”
Even a strong supporter of Bush’s policies is wondering where Crist will go.
“I don’t look for him to dismantle what we’ve done,” said state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. But at the same time, “there’s been a lot of wondering and mystery about how much of the Jeb Bush legacy will be protected and how.”
In the news release, Winn left little hint about his future, saying only that “I hope to continue to contribute to education as a private citizen.” But in a 2005 interview with the St. Petersburg Times, he said he was training to be a guardian ad litem for abused children and planned to be a community mediator.
He also said he wanted to return to teaching.
Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writers Jeffrey Solochek and Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report.