New education leader needs to change agency

Published July 20, 2007

Florida quit electing an education commissioner eight years ago, believing that professional credentials might prove more valuable than political ones. Two politically motivated appointees later, the state only now has the chance to get it right. It is conducting its first national search for a commissioner, and public schools deserve a new brand of leadership.

The first two appointed commissioners, Jim Horne and John Winn, served as little more than campaign staff for a governor, Jeb Bush, who was so absorbed by his own education agenda that he has seeded a private foundation to safeguard his legacy. Bush didn't bother with either a search or the pretense that the appointed Board of Education would, as required by law, make the decision. The only qualification that seemed to matter was obedience.

With Winn's departure, Gov. Charlie Crist has signaled his support for a real search and his respect for the role of the Education Board. That alone is having a salutary effect. None of the current applicants is a legislator, as Horne was. Only one, K-12 chancellor Cheri Yecke, is an inhouse candidate with professed Bush ideology, as Winn was.

The next commissioner is going to have to shake up the Department of Education, an agency that has lorded over public schools with a combination of bureaucratic arrogance and institutional paranoia. DOE has been so slavish to its testing and accountability agenda that it brands criticism as a form of mutiny and critics as enemies. No wonder the concerns of classroom teachers have been ignored.

The reason a functioning DOE is so essential to education reform is that lawmakers and governors can't be expected to understand the complexities. For that, they need a DOE that can make sure, for example, the reading test scale for 10th-graders doesn't defeat the purpose of high school grades. (It does, and DOE has looked the other way.)

The Education Board, whose members were appointed mainly by Bush, might want to take note of legislative efforts to turn back the clock and allow voters to again elect the commissioner. That effort is inspired, in part, by the baldly political and administratively inept tenure of the first two appointees. If the board wants to keep its appointment power, it will want to focus this time on competence, experience and professionalism.

Crist, who served as the last elected education commissioner, also has a stake in this selection. He has promised to bridge the ugly divide between Tallahassee and the classroom, and to listen to what educators have to offer. For that to happen, the next education commissioner will need to restore professionalism to DOE and rid a culture that has thrived on conflict with teachers and principals.

Schools are being held accountable. It's time for the same at DOE.