Education Stakeholders Praise Outgoing Ed Commissioner
Eric Smith's high standards developed many winning strategies in four years
Around the State
Even the most ardent critics of the direction Florida is taking on education, with increased emphasis on test score data and expansions of voucher programs, charter and virtual schools, hold back when it comes to Smith.
Florida’s popular education commissioner, whose last day on the job was Friday, has earned accolades from a wide spectrum of education stakeholders during his four years in office.
“Considering the political environment in Florida, he has done very well,” said Andy Ford, the head of the Florida Education Association. “The politics of this state will not allow anybody to do the job fully.”
Smith appeased the tough-to-please school boards and school administrators, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and even earned the begrudging respect of the teachers’ unions and pro-public school groups, which have vehemently opposed policies that Smith supported.
One of the few people who may not have been impressed is Gov. Rick Scott. When Smith announced his resignation in March, it was noted that Scott had not met with Smith since becoming governor, sending the signal that Smith may not have been welcome in the new administration. The governor has indirect influence over selecting the education commissioner by appointing members of the State Board of Education, which hires the commissioner.
A short three-sentence statement by Scott in March said only: “On behalf of the state of Florida, I thank him for his years of dedicated service.” That stood in marked contrast to the long goodbye he got on the floor of the Florida Senate in May, with floor speeches by Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, extolling his work as commissioner during a time of major changes to the education landscape in Florida.
“What we are doing is cutting-edge stuff,” Wise said in an interview this week. “When it comes to making systemic changes to the way we evaluate teachers, principals and how we think the students ought to perform, Eric Smith was instrumental in making that happen.”
Wise was critical of the governor’s alleged treatment of Smith.
“I don’t know who talked to the governor, but it sure wasn’t Eric,” Wise said.
Smith is leaving his job after four years at the helm of the Department of Education. Hired during Gov. Charlie Crist’s administration, Smith oversaw a department in the midst of implementing major reforms. He helped raise the standards for statewide tests and curriculum, ushered in a major change to how teachers are evaluated and paid, tying salaries to test scores for the first time, and a push toward more virtual classes and online test-taking.
Smith declined to be interviewed for this story. A spokesman said Smith wanted to keep everyone’s “focus squarely on the future, including the transition to new leadership here at the Department.”
But education stakeholders who worked closely with him over the last four years describe a commissioner whose greatest strength was his steady hand, staying calm in times of crisis and working to bring the often-fractious education community together. Educators say a clear example of this was when the unions, teachers, parents and other education administrators worked to develop a plan that won $700 million in Race to the Top grants.
“He worked with us as much as politically he felt he could,” Ford said.
Sen. Montford, who is also president of the Florida Association of School District Superintendents, said Smith made it a priority to communicate frequently with superintendents and school boards. “Does that mean we always agreed? No. With as many controversial issues we faced during his tenure, one would expect to have differences of opinion and those differences became clear,” Montford said. “But at the same time, it was done in a very, very respectful manner. I never saw the commissioner lose his temper or lose control.”
The commissioner’s job can be challenging because of his many bosses, educators said. Though the education commissioner reports to the State Board of Education, he or she has to stay attuned to the wishes of the Legislature and governor, who set policy, and balance the demands of the school administrators and teachers in the state.
Sometimes all of those bosses may have conflicting demands, which was the case when the Legislature first undertook teacher merit pay reforms in 2010, which resulted in a veto by Crist.
One of the most critical voices of some of the changes to education in Florida, Kathleen Oropeza with the pro-public school group Fund Education Now, said no one person is responsible for the direction Florida has taken in education.
“You can’t really peg the current culture obsessed with corporatizing education … on one person,” Oropeza said in an e-mail.
She added that Smith was involved in the national education group Chiefs of Change, which advocated for increasing school choice beyond traditional public schools. “Smith has certainly supported the use of public dollars to dismantle public education and fund private, for-profit schools,” Oropeza said.
Others noted that Smith was dropped in during a long-term period of massive education reforms in Florida. Starting in the 1990s, an increasingly conservative Legislature and a series of Republican governors have pushed for changes that included the introduction of voucher programs that draw more students into private schools; a large expansion of charter schools; and a push for more accountability measures and school grading.
“One of the things that Florida has been fortunate in having … since the mid-'90s is a consistency of educational leadership,” said Frank Brogan, the chancellor of the State University System and a former Florida education commissioner when it was an elected post. “Having been there and done this, that is unusual in a state.”
Smith keeps a low profile and is not well-known statewide, though is certainly recognizable within the state’s education community. “Commissioner Smith has an understated determination for his mission,” Brogan said. “He is a gentleman, he is a scholar, he truly is passionate in his pursuit of excellence.”
In Florida politics, Smith’s greatest asset may be his ability to not become a target of criticism. “He is even-keeled,” Wise said, noting that “he was philosophically attuned to the direction we were going to go.”
Though many will remember Smith’s tenure for the passage and implementation of the controversial teacher merit pay bill, Brogan singled out his efforts to update the state’s curriculum and testing standards as Smith’s legacy. The idea was to toughen K-12 education standards so that students were better prepared and Florida stayed competitive.
“The standards had been in place for about 10 years,” Brogan said. “Eric felt, and he was spot on, that we had the opportunity to take the original standards and take people who were experts in the field, take those standards apart and change whatever needed to be changed to make sure they were tough enough and clear enough.”
Ava Parker, the chair of the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System, said she appreciates Smith’s understanding of how K-12 policy impacts higher education. “He certainly reminded us of how important it is that we have the right foundation for our students as they are entering the state university system,” Parker said.
An example of this focus is the increase in high school students taking courses that yield college credit. Florida now has the highest percentage of students – 40 percent – who sit for an AP exam in high school.
One of the most powerful education lobbying groups in the state, the Foundation for Florida’s Future, which is backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, praised Smith for seeing eye-to-eye on education reforms.
“You have to have someone who philosophically believes in where the state is headed and has the skill-set to build upon the great foundation that we have,” said Patricia Levesque, the head of the Foundation for Florida’s Future.
Levesque said Smith was “driven by data,” using it to determine where schools and students were struggling.
As the attention turns to Smith’s replacement, the members of the State Board of Education charged with hiring the next commissioner have said they wish they could find someone nearly identical to Smith. In a sign of how much support there is for the outgoing commissioner, one State Board of Education member even resigned over his departure.
T. Willard Fair, the former chairman of the board, said he was “dismayed at the process that has unfolded.”
After Fair’s resignation, Scott did make overtures to the State Board of Education in an effort to smooth ruffled feathers.
Former education commissioner John Winn will take over for Smith starting Saturday on an interim basis. Interviews for Smith’s permanent replacement will be on June 20.