Op-Ed By: Richard Corcoran
At the end of April, I will be stepping away from my role as the Florida Commissioner of Education that I have held for almost 4 years. As I reflect on what FDOE has accomplished during this time in pursuit of Governor Ron DeSantis’ vision for education, I realize anew the importance of philosophy and leadership.
When I started this role, it was important to me to define our bedrock principles. The first and foremost foundational question is, “What is the purpose of education?” We ignore this question to our peril: how we answer it will define our society. One answer is simply that education is meant to train students for jobs; however, if we follow this to its logical ends, we will quickly find that we have morally and intellectually failed students. This is the answer that socialist and communist societies opt for because they do not desire citizens who can think for themselves. This is not the answer of a democratic society.
The answer of a free society should be one that encompasses the full potential of humans, the inherent worth and dignity present in each person. Parents instinctively know this: children should not be reduced to cogs in an industrial machine who require merely “job training”. The control that citizens have over their lives in a self-governing society will demand more. Therefore, beginning with this philosophy, FDOE has pursued policies that ensure our state is raising citizens who can participate in a fair and just self-governing nation—that we teach students how to think, not what to think. Our goal is to equip students to make wise decisions and solve complex problems. If we commit to do this, those students will always have jobs, and, more importantly, our country will have citizens who flourish in a free and fair society.
To keep this idea front and center in education, the foyer of the FDOE building in Tallahassee now has painted on one of the main walls the following paraphrased quote from social reformer, statesman, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass:
Education is freedom. It is the uplifting of the human soul to the glorious light of truth, and to deny anyone this right is the greatest crime against humanity.
This is and should always be our educational North Star.
While philosophy is of utmost importance, it has no power apart from great leadership. To paraphrase General Stanley McChrystal:
[Leadership is] the single biggest reason organizations succeed or fail. It dwarfs numbers, technology, ideology, and historical forces in determining the outcome of events…Switch…the best battalion [leader] with [the leader] of the worst, and within 90 days the relative effectiveness of the battalions will have switched as well.
I have seen this play out over the last three years in Florida. We were blessed to choose a leader who understands his philosophical convictions in the realm of education and, perhaps more importantly, has both the leadership skills and courage to make it happen, even in the face of great adversity. As a result of his leadership, Florida, compared to states who chose different leaders, has accomplished much where other states have faltered.
At no point was Governor DeSantis’ leadership more apparent or more critical than when our state came under attack from the COVID-19 pandemic. Our governor, unlike so many leaders stricken with fear and indecision—either beholden to political headwinds, or simply lacking the intestinal fortitude to make the difficult but all-too-right call—insisted there be a seat for every child in Florida for face-to-face instruction. Rather than legislate mandates from on high, Governor DeSantis instead empowered parents to make health and educational decisions for their families and, in so doing, made Florida the focus of the nation. While few dared to step forward and do what was right for students in the face of intense political pressure, Governor DeSantis did.
Indeed, Governor DeSantis refused to fear “fear itself.” We followed the science and reopened schools long before any other state. We made changes to make education both more accessible and more effective. We put students first, and we afforded families access to high-quality education options during their children’s vital learning stages. We fought for parental choice despite rogue school officials, sustained media attacks, and bad-faith legal challenges, all of which we prevailed on time and again.
While Governor DeSantis’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the most noteworthy accomplishments of his tenure, many more of his educational goals were realized as well. Below are just a few of the results that have been attained so far:
- Elimination of Common Core standards
- Record expansion of school choice, especially for poor and minority students
- Revitalization of career and technical education
- The largest teacher pay increase in our state’s history
- Elimination of unnecessary testing, while still preserving the best accountability system in the nation
- Elimination of indoctrination in our classrooms
- Implementation of the strongest civics education in the country
- Overhaul of early learning
- Emphasis on early literacy
As one would expect, the nation has taken note. I am proud that Florida is now regarded as the “Education State” and the national epicenter of educational innovation and reform. Serving as Florida’s Commissioner of Education has been the privilege of a lifetime. My team at the Florida Department of Education has accomplished much, and I am honored to have worked with and learned from them during my tenure. I look forward to seeing them progress with the work that has been started, continuing to achieve the inspiring vision of Governor Ron DeSantis. Moreover, I am proud to know that the one man who has led us throughout—Governor Ron DeSantis—will remain. And that means the great work will continue.