Next education commissioner will tell us a lot about Florida's commitment to reform

With any luck, this week will bring a stop to the revolving door in the office of Florida's education commissioner.

This state is on its fourth commissioner in 18 months and going on its fifth.

Friday is the deadline to submit applications for the high-profile position. The new commissioner will have a big influence on what qualifies as a passing score on high-stakes tests and could help keep Florida as a national leader for education reform.

The résumés turned in so far don't provide much hope. The governor-appointed State Board of Education, which hires the commissioner, already pushed back the deadline once because the applicant pool was so underwhelming.

There's a collection of school principals from towns you've never heard of, several small-district superintendents and a consultant who also noted he is a collector of "Coca-Cola Santa Claus" memorabilia.

Sheesh ... is this a contest for the next education commissioner or simply Gov. Rick Scott's latest political prop?

If history is any guide, the more serious and qualified candidates will wait until the deadline to put in for the job.

Everybody has an eye on Tony Bennett, the shake-'em-up reformer with an impressive list of accomplishments as Indiana's top education chief. He lost his re-election bid earlier this month — and Indiana lost its place as a reform leader — in an upset by a veteran teacher and union leader.

Indiana's loss could be Florida's gain.

Then again, it will all depend on whether the state board and the governor are looking for somebody to push Florida forward or somebody to soften Scott's image on education reform.

There are worrisome signs that Scott is looking for the latter.

In recent months the governor's take on education has been, to say the least, erratic.

After his inaugural legislative session in 2011, the first bill Scott signed as governor was one that implemented a controversial merit-pay system for teachers. Reformers saw it as a critical step in school accountability.

But lately Scott, who must fear his potential fate as a one-term governor, has softened.

He filmed a television commercial promising "No more teaching to the test." He launched a "listening tour" at schools with teachers and parents. And Scott had teachers-union President Andy Ford over to the mansion for a few choruses of "Kumbaya."

Somebody like Bennett would have every right to question whether Scott is still committed to reform or more worried about a potential political showdown against Charlie Crist in 2014.

Crist vetoed merit pay in 2010, the beginning of his messy exit from the Republican Party. Now he looks like a full-fledged Democrat gracing John Morgan's billboards and chiding Scott on Twitter about the recent election foul-ups. (That's another area the governor has been erratic on as of late, first saying "the right thing happened" before ordering a review of the mess that caused hours-long voting lines.)

It's no wonder Scott might consider himself vulnerable on education.

Schools are one of the most galvanizing issues in this state.

Just look at Republican-dominated Seminole County, which went for Mitt Romney but also voted to tax itself to raise more money for schools after severe state budget cuts. Plus, voters there helped turn out incumbent Republican state Rep. Scott Plakon in favor of Democrat Karen Castor Dentel, a schoolteacher.

Education reform, though, is not a partisan issue. Sure, the teachers union hates the idea of linking pay to student performance, and the union typically votes Democratic. And Republican Jeb Bush is a national leader of the reform movement.

But Jeb and President Barack Obama are remarkably close on this issue. Obama's Race to the Top grants required a teacher-evaluation system just like the one in the merit-pay law Scott signed.

And at this week's National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, speakers will include Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan along with John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

Maybe Scott isn't getting all squishy on reform. Perhaps he's just borrowing a page out of the book of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and trying to get the union on board with the teacher-evaluation system.

Giving the teachers union a seat at the table and listening to the concerns of parents is politically smart. So is keeping Florida on a path toward real school accountability, where every child, no matter his or her race or income level, is given the same opportunity to learn.

The proof will be in who gets picked as the next education commissioner.

bkassab@tribune.com or 407-420-5448

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