Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 17th 2019

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Getting Education Right

By Rick Outzen

Florida’s Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran brought his traveling roadshow to the Panhandle Tiger Bay Club last Friday. The former Florida House Speaker had his pick of positions in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration. He followed his passion and convictions and sought to head the Florida Department of Education. He has already begun shaking things up.

Corcoran began his talk asking the audience about the purpose of education. Someone in the audience shouted, “To get a job,” but Corcoran had a more profound, philosophical answer.

“Education is to create a great citizen—somebody who can wrestle with the great questions of time; someone who can synthesize large volumes of information and make good sound decisions and can critically think outside the box,” he said.

He added, “If you find somebody who has been given a world-class education, and they are humble, and they are capable and willing to work hard, they will 100% of the time have a job.”

The education commissioner is passionate about education and its role in our republic. He said, “There’s only one way that we move forward and save our republic for the next 100 years and next generations, is we’ve got to get education right.”

He offered a  quote he attributed to ancient Greek philosophers, “If you want to know what the future of your country is, take me, and show me how you’re educating your youth, and I’ll tell you exactly what your future looks like.”

Corcoran believes Florida has done three things over the past 20 years to improve public education.

“The first and foremost thing we did in education in Florida is we say we’re going to measure; we’re going to have accountability,” he said. “And when we measured, guess what you find out in two seconds? Every single parent cares about the outcome and the education that they’re taught. As soon as they had some awareness, some transparency, some knowledge and they could move with their feet, they did, and education started changing.”

During the Q&A session, Corcoran agreed with what Inweekly and the News Journal have reported on the school grading system being lowered to make schools appear more successful than they actually are.

“An A School starts at an F. If you were a student in a classroom and scored at 62%, you would fail, but we call you an A school,” he said. “If you take our third-grade reading scores, we went up another point this year. That’s statewide 58%. It’s horrific.”

Corcoran said the governor wants him to eliminate the current standards, Common Core, streamline testing, and raise assessment scores—”not with lowering the bar, but by creating additional rigor.”

The commissioner said his department is reviewing all the standards for each grade and making changes that will lead to more a well-rounded education. He said, “All of those changes will happen, and I think you’re going to see that increased rigor, to your point, will ultimately increase our top scores for A, B, C, D and F.”

The second change that improved education was adding competition, referring to school choice, vouchers and charter schools.

“Traditional public schools, charter public schools, private schools, all schools get better where there’s competition,” said Corcoran. “It’s not about protecting status quos or fiefdoms. It’s a game-changer when you have a choice.”

During the Q&A session, Corcoran had an opportunity to explain more. He said we’ve experimented on public education over the years and hurt whole generations of kids.

“When you go to the House environmental committee and you say, ‘Hey, here is a jar of my magic potion. If we put this in Lake Okeechobee, it will clean it up,’ and someone would say, ‘Get the heck out of here,’” he said. “You go to the road constructions and say, ‘Here’s my new magical pavement. If you put this pavement down on the road, it’ll last 20 years as opposed to concrete or asphalt.’ Get out of here, unless you can show me a country that you’ve done it for 20 years.”

He added, “In education, we experiment with our kids all the time. And so I always say facts and evidence matter. Can we make education 100% facts- and evidence-based? And if we do, what you will see, unequivocally, is competition always makes everyone better. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing in the school choice movement.”

The third element of public education that is still a work in progress—the celebration and elevation of the teaching profession.

“I will say that Florida is completely inferior in how we’ve been doing that, and we’ve got to get that right,” he said. “Nothing is more important to the outcome of a child.”

Corcoran said billion-dollar capital funds aren’t the answer to improving a child’s education. He said, “You can teach Plato under a tree, no building walls, classroom, chalkboards, getting a world-class educator standing in front of them.”

In 2015, Inweekly broke the story on mismanagement and grade fixing at the Newpoint Charter schools in Escambia County. Last year, Newpoint founder Marcus May was found guilty of robbing the school districts of Escambia and five other counties for a total of $5.2 million.

Corcoran wasn’t surprised to get a question about holding charter schools more accountable. He said, “Charter schools, if they are financially mismanaging their school, if they are academically failing, they’re immediately shut down.”

He continued, “And I just did this. There was one in Manatee County, financially failing and academically a D. Working with the school board and superintendent, I went in, seized control of the school, kicked out the charter operating company, and it’s now being managed by the district school board. What we ought to do, though, is have the same rules apply to traditional public schools.”

The commissioner discussed vocational training, which has been kicked around in various forums in Pensacola as people look for solutions for those students that aren’t good candidates for college.

“Governor DeSantis has absolutely led the charge on that,” said Corcoran. “Yes, every child deserves that well-rounded education, but, at some point, while they’re getting that well-rounded education and they aren’t going to go to college, now we have $10 million for apprenticeship programs.”

He said the Department of Education was evaluating those programs to “figure out which ones are good, which ones aren’t and make sure that we’re getting kids in a pathway that will lead to long-term success.”

“All of those grants are now being distributed to the districts to put more emphasis and more opportunities for kids to go out there who are not going to college but have a real professional certification and degree and have a real career,” he added.

For Corcoran, he sees his mission is to get education right because when we do, “People will live selflessly; they will be empathetic, and they will go out there and be great citizens, great husbands and wives and spouses. They’ll be great members in a community.”