With only 15 months to go until he faces voters for re-election, Rick Scott is forced to confront where he wants to direct education in Florida and who he wants to lead Floridas schools and universities.
During his time as governor, Scott has tried to build on Jeb Bushs education reforms, working to build ties between Florida schools and the private sector to prepare students for future jobs. Hes also urged Florida colleges to offer degrees that cost less than $10,000. But in the past year he has looked to appeal to public school teachers, traditionally supporters of Democrats, by vigorously promoting a $2,500-a-year pay raise for each of them.
After two recent resignations of the highest-level members of his education team, Scott is forced to shuffle the deck with the states education leadership. Conservatives had high hopes for Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett based on his record, but he resigned under pressure after a scandal surfaced from his time as education commissioner in Indiana. Bennett had been accused of improving the grade of a charter school connected to a major Republican donor. Though he flatly denied wrongdoing, he said he would resign to spare Scott the distraction of a scandal. It's left the governor with the need to find a replacement.
Former Gov. Bush, chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the Foundation for Floridas Future, had angry words for those who forced Bennett's demise. "Floridas students will feel the loss of his leadership the most," Bush wrote in a Miami Herald oped. "Those who stooped to nasty political tactics to undermine Tony should be ashamed. They protect their self-interest at the expense of our next generation."
Besides a new education commissioner, Scott will have to find someone to lead on higher education, too. State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan, 59 and near the end of his contract, resigned Wednesday to do the same job in Pennsylvania. On Thursday, John Delaney, president of the University of North Florida and a former interim chancellor, said he had no interest in filling Brogans shoes.
Time is not on Scotts side on either appointment, though filling the education commissioner position is more pressing. Scott has already put off naming a new lieutenant governor after five months, but he doesnt have the luxury of waiting on selecting a new education team. Making the timing even worse, many schools and universities across the state are set to open in the coming weeks. Fates have conspired to make education a leading talking point at a time when Scott no doubt had hoped to move on.
Apart from personnel, Scott has to face implementing the new Common Core State Standards, a bone of contention among some conservatives. Many continue to question and oppose them, even though they are backed by many prominent Republicans. Just like Bush, Scott has been a supporter of Common Core. During his time in Indiana and his brief tenure in Florida, Bennett was a strong supporter of the new standards. Whoever Scott names to replace Bennett will have to deal with implementing -- perhaps even reaffirming -- Common Core.
With the governor expected to face a tough race in 2014, whomever he names to replace Bennett will be under pressure to set the table for Common Core while keeping conservatives in line. Its a tough assignment, to be sure -- with Scott himself watching, all the while falling deeper into the pressure cooker.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.