The State Board of Education removed the first word from interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart’s title last week.
But Board member Kathleen Shanahan had a strange question for a job interview: Tell me again who you work for?
“And I just want to make sure from Pam, that she understands – with full clarity – who she reports to?” Shanahan asked.
“Kathleen, I think that we all know that we serve many masters,” Stewart responded. “But, ultimately, this board is the boss of the commissioner of education and I am fully aware of that and understand that.”
Shanahan’s question was prompted by two years education commissioner turnover. Five people have served as Florida’s education commissioner since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011.
Eric Smith was forced out in 2011 when Scott took office.
John Winn filled in as interim, until Gerard Robinson was hired in 2011. But Robinson left a year later to be closer to his family in Virginia and following errors with school grades.
Stewart stepped in as interim chief until Tony Bennett took over in January. Bennett resigned in August over questions about school grade changes he made at his previous post in Indiana.
Florida’s education commissioner faces unique pressure.
The position reports to the State Board of Education, but must also deal with the governor, lawmakers, school district leaders, education businesses and parents.
Former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush helped transform the state into America’s education laboratory with new ideas, like expanding school choice and retaining third graders who read well below grade level. Those policies have also drawn criticism and a well-organized opposition.
Florida is also a large swing state where everything is politicized.
Jim Horne is a former Republican lawmaker who served as education commissioner under Bush. He now works in public affairs, including lobbying for charter schools.
“Florida is in a prominent position,” Horne said. “That can be good and bad. That gives the commissioner of education in the state of Florida a bully pulpit where they have instant credibility around the country. The negative part of that is you’re in the spotlight.”
Horne says there are plenty of ways to trip up an Education Commissioner.
Testing and school grades are high-profile issues so any problems or mistakes become a big deal.
There’s the sprawling scope of the agency. In addition to K-12, the commissioner oversees the Florida College System, disabilities services for the blind and more.
And often, the commissioner is trying to work with groups whose interests conflict.
School districts may want more money for technology or teacher merit pay, but the governor, lawmakers or the State Board of Education may disagree.
“There’s just a natural tug-of-war that you get pulled on,” Horne said. “And then you add some partisan politics to it and it’s even more difficult.”
Florida switched from an elected commissioner to an appointed one in 2003. Former two-term Education Commissioner Betty Castor says the change has not made the job easier.
“The whole idea of having an appointed commissioner was to take the politics out of this education commissioner position,” said Castor, a Democrat. “That has not happened.”
Castor faults Republican Gov. Rick Scott for sending mixed messages on education.
First he wanted to cut funding. The past two years he sought more money for schools.
Now Scott isn’t giving a clear answer on Florida’s new math and English standards, known as Common Core. Critics of the standards have grown more vocal in recent months, including Scott’s Tea Party base.
“There seems to be a lack of clarity in who is making the decisions,” she said.
Looming over every education decisions is Bush. His two foundations work to promote and preserve his education ideas in Florida and other states, including issuing report cards for Florida lawmakers. Bush endorses candidates in local school board, legislative and statewide races.
And Bush is one of the most vocal supporters of Common Core.
During last week’s State Board of Education meeting, two former Bush staffers criticized Scott’s leadership on education issues. Later in the week, Bush said Scott had told him he supports Common Core.
Horne said the perception of Bush as education Godfather is exaggerated.
“Yes, he is a national player,” Horne said. “He influences many things, many areas. Not just Florida but also in other states. That doesn’t mean he’s a puppeteer trying to pull the strings of everybody and make things happen.”
Castor said commissioners are wise to listen to any former governor.
Stewart is from Florida and not a “rising star” – often with a reputation — plucked from a national search.
Castor said that’s an advantage as she tries to balance all the demands of her.
“I know Pam Stewart. She is a good person. She is an educator,” she said. “I think with her background she will try to do the right thing. But she’s going to have a lot of people to listen to. And a lot of people looking over her shoulder.”