For our story this week about all the pressure facing Florida’s education commissioners we spoke with two former education commissioners — one elected and one appointed.
Florida elected education commissioners until 2003, when a state constitutional amendment made the job appointed. Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Jim Horne as commissioner in 2003. Now, the governor appoints members of the State Board of Education, who hire the commissioner.
Five people have served as education commissioner since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011. Pam Stewart was appointed last week. That has led some lawmakers to propose returning to an elected commissioner.
We asked Horne, a Republican, and former two-term elected commissioner Betty Castor, a Democrat, about the strengths and weakness of both models. Not surprisingly, Horne favored appointed while Castor favored elected.
“One of the advantages of the elected office is that the person in that office can target education and education alone,” Castor said. “And there’s no question of other responsibilities. It worked well when I was there. I don’t think that it was overtly political.”
Castor said the position is just as political now as when the position was elected.
“I was hopeful,” she said. “The whole idea of having an appointed commissioner was to take the politics out of this education commissioner position. That has not happened.”
But Horne said he made a big change when he took charge: budgeting.
“If you look back from 2001 and go back in time,” Horne said, “the department would propose these ridiculous budgets – the university budget would be billions more than the legislature could possibly fund. But those folks felt compelled to advocate for their constituencies, and these constituencies wanted them to promote more money.
“So the ability to have an appointed one,” he said, “we begin to say ‘OK, we’re going to make a realistic budget request within the resources that we know the legislature has to spend.'”
There is no single model for how state school chief are selected and then who they report to, said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and a former New Jersey deputy education commissioner.
“All I can say for certain is the politics are still going to be rampant no matter what the government structure,” he said. “It’s always going to consist of the governor’s office, the legislature, possibly the courts, if they get involved, and then more interest groups than you could possibly imagine.”
Both Smarick and Horne argued high turnover is only a recent problem for Florida school chiefs.
“Let’s don’t focus on the last couple of years what’s happened,” said Horne, who served three years. “In the NFL they turn over quarterbacks pretty fast, too. It does happen. But let’s look at it over the longer period of time. We have had some durability there and I think that we’ll get back to some durability here soon.”