It appears that Michelle Rhee, the bomb-throwing school reformer and favorite of Gov.-elect Rick Scott, will not be Florida's new education commissioner.
And that's a good thing.
Michelle Rhee was chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., for three years. In that short time she closed failing schools, fired staff, battled the teachers union and became a national symbol for reform. She was blunt, ruthless and a major issue in the defeat last month of her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty.
She resigned shortly thereafter and was quickly recruited by Scott to headline his education transition team. From there, it was a quick rumor to the education-commissioner job, speculation that Scott's office didn't tamp down.
But Monday, Rhee announced on Oprah's show that she is starting a national reform organization called Students First. That hardly leaves her time to work 60 hours a week in Tallahassee.
It is a perfect gig for her.
Florida is not.
Rhee was the right person in the right place at the right time in Washington. Never has a school district spent so much money to educate so few kids. It was a bloated, unaccountable morass from which kids either fled or failed.
It required dynamite.
Florida does not.
Jeb Bush already blew this place up back in 1999. We are well beyond needing a Michelle Rhee here. We are two phases beyond that.
So who is next on the list?
I fear it will not be the best man for the job.
I went on my own national search. I looked for someone with experience in school reform, someone who has proven credentials in closing the achievement gap, someone not afraid of taking on unions and someone with national stature.
I found him.
He has produced better results than Michelle Rhee but with much less fanfare.
He is a former principal at Winter Park High School.
And I hate to say his name because, coming from the mainstream media, it could be the kiss of death with Rick Scott.
If so, I apologize to Eric Smith, Florida's current education commissioner.
Some things are broken. Smith is not one of them.
Last year Florida had its best showing yet on national reading-assessment tests for fourth- and eighth-graders. We have become a national role model in closing the achievement gap.
We have become a national player in education. Working with high-flying Massachusetts, Florida has helped developed rigorous national academic standards. They are designed to make our students globally competitive.
These standards already are being incorporated here. The theory, so far proved correct, is that if you raise standards, people rise to the challenge.
This past year, Florida posted a 79 percent graduation rate, the best in the state's history. The gain came from improvements in the minority graduation rate.
We have a long way to go. But we are on the way, which is a lot better than most states can say.
This year, while he was working on national standards, Smith also was working on new end-of-year exams in Florida and new graduation requirements that will include algebra II and chemistry or physics. He wrote a successful application for a federal "Race to the Top'' grant that brought Florida $700 million. He dealt with a major blunder by an FCAT-scoring company that delayed test results and school grades.
He spearheaded controversial legislation to reform teacher pay and tenure protection, only to have Gov. Charlie Crist veto it to gain teacher support in his U.S. Senate race. Now it's back to the drawing board.
There are a lot of things coming down the pike, and one of them is not money as the state faces a $2.5 billion hole in the budget. Sometimes proven experience trumps change.
I've never met anyone more devoted to giving poor 6-year-old kids a chance to succeed in life than Smith. I've never met anyone at his level so uninterested in self-promotion and so totally absorbed in the mission.
If Rick Scott can find a better person for this job, he is one heck of a talent scout.
Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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