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Thursday, Mar 21, 2019
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With Richard Corcoran in charge, can Florida's education leaders find compromise?

After years of often bitter debate over the future of Florida schools, this week's selection of a new education commissioner, however controversial, left leaders on both sides hoping for more collaboration.

"Our children are in great hands," State Board of Education chairwoman Marva Johnson said after announcing the board's unanimous confirmation of former House Speaker Richard Corcoran as the state's next education commissioner.

Even leaders of the Florida Education Association, which has battled Corcoran over his most prominent education policy initiatives and lobbied hard against his appointment, sounded a note of optimism.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Richard Corcoran unanimously appointed Commissioner of Education

"We want to work with anyone who wants to empower our public schools," FEA president Fed Ingram said Tuesday, a day after inviting Corcoran to visit schools and sit with his leadership team to talk issues.

"Any amount of history we have with Mr. Corcoran, we are certainly willing to ensure success for our kids," he said. "If we have to consult, work with and possibly collaborate with Mr. Corcoran, we will certainly do that to the extent possible, if Mr. Corcoran wants to do that."

Corcoran said he welcomed the opportunity.

"I've always had an open mind. I've always had an open door," he said in an interview Tuesday. "The focus needs to be on providing our school children . the best world-class education possible. Anybody whose motivation is that, I'll sit down and meet with them."

He did not want to discuss the nuts and bolts of how he will run the department when his term begins on or about Jan. 7, saying he needed to consult Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis first. But he stressed that his goals will be to provide educational opportunities for all children, regardless of background or economic status, and he will seek the best answers to accomplish that mission.

Ingram expressed hope that the discussions will be both serious and long-lasting, and not just one-offs aimed at checking an item off a to-do list.

"I'm not talking about a moment," he said. "What I want is genuine conversation, policy talk about what can empower the classroom, what can empower student success."

Coming together in such a way hasn't happened for too many years, Ingram said, as opposing sides have faced off in search of winning at the other's expense.

"We teach our kids, if you have differences, you sit down, you talk it out," he said. "We will not agree on everything. But there has got to be some common ground."

State Board members peppered Corcoran, the only nominee before them, with questions for more than an hour Monday before formally taking the action that most observers considered a foregone conclusion. Some of the back-and-forth targeted some of the key concerns raised by the former speaker's critics.

Board member Tom Grady asked Corcoran to defend against allegations that he and his wife would "enrich" themselves through any actions favoring charter schools, because Ann Corcoran started a charter in Pasco County.

Corcoran stressed that his wife volunteered countless hours and spent about $50,000 of her own money to get Classical Prep off the ground, and the personal benefit, if any, was having a place to educate their children.

Board member Michael Olenick noted that Corcoran is a strong advocate of choice programs, including charters, but also tax credit scholarships and other initiatives. He asked Corcoran to leave choice aside and explain how the department would empower traditional K-12 public schools. "And they need help."

Corcoran talked about his support of public schools, noting more than 80 percent of Florida's children attend them, and said he would promote initiatives to improve teachers and instruction, targeting more money to classrooms.

His responses convinced board members they did not need to look further for a commissioner.

"Richard Corcoran brings a different lens to leadership," Olenick said. "I think he will bring a new look for education. He checked the boxes."

Since the board's vote, advocates on all sides of the Florida education debate have battled on social media over whether Corcoran's ascension represents a death knell for public education, or a breath of fresh air. Many leaders in government, meanwhile, said they'd watch and see how things turn out.

"Richard was very passionate about education issues" as speaker, said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, in line to become Senate president in 2020. "I suspect he will be very passionate about his job, and will work to continue to carry out the governor-elect's wishes."

Staff writer Emily Mahoney contributed. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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