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Monday, July 4, 2011

Just who is Florida's new education chief

From the Palm Beach Post's editorial board

Way down on Gerard Robinson's résumé is this entry: Marcus Garvey School, Los Angeles. Fifth-grade teacher. 1991-92. Taught English, geography, reading, writing and other subjects. Organized field trips for students and parents. Participated in school fundraisers.

That long-ago, short-term stint is the sole extent of Mr. Robinson's experience as a K-12 public schoolteacher. He's spent a lot of time in academia, including a 1995 master's degree in education from Harvard. And Mr. Robinson has spent a lot of time as a policy wonk advocating vouchers and charter schools.

Last year, he parlayed that "choice" advocacy into an appointment as Virginia's secretary of education. And after slightly more than a year in that job, flying the choice banner was sufficient to make him the Florida Board of Education's unanim ous pick to replace Eric Smith as Florida's commissioner of education.

Of course, Florida doesn't actually need a choice cheerleader in the top job. The state is a self-proclaimed leader in charter schools, voucher programs and online education. What Florida needs is a leader to advocate for students who will continue to attend regular public schools - and that's the majority of them.

In fact, Florida's expansion of choice programs has come so quickly that students going that route could benefit more from an education commissioner with moderate skepticism that those voucher schools and start-up charters are providing an adequate education. Lax oversight has been a problem all the way back to then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

The biggest job for Florida's new education chief will be administering a teacher evaluation system that doesn't exist yet that relies on dozens of end-of-course tests that don't exist yet. That's relatively easy to do if the real intent is to punish public schoolteachers - a motivation that gains credence from the speed with which the Legislature and Gov. Scott acted and their failure to consult teachers.

Creating a credible evaluation system is a much harder job if the intent is to improve teaching. And even if that's Mr. Robinson's genuine goal, his lack of recent, in-depth classroom experience could be a hindrance. He also might find it necessary to tell the governor and lawmakers that instead of cutting the education budget, as they did this year, they need to provide serious pay raises for good teachers.

We know Mr. Robinson is good at telling his bosses what they want to hear. That's why he got the job. He'll be due for merit pay if he has the guts to tell them what they need to hear.

- Jac Wilder VerSteeg,

for The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board

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