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GOP lawmakers want elected education commissioner back on Florida Cabinet

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A pair of Republican lawmakers will seek approval for a new cabinet-level commissioner of education during the 2016 Legislative Session, reversing the office’s demotion to an appointed position in 2003.

The proposals — SB 942 by Sen. Rene Garcia of Miami and HB 767 by Rep. Debbie Mayfield of Vero Beach would require a constitutional amendment to reinstate the education commissioner as one of five voting members on the Florida Cabinet, responsible for deciding executive branch policy and implementing law across the state.

The commissioner would return to a previous role as a statewide elected position and appear on the ballot in 2018. Currently, the commissioner is appointed by the State Board of Education and answers to the governor.

In an interview with FloridaPolitics.com Friday, Mayfield pointed to inconsistency and widespread dissatisfaction among parents after years of turnover at the top of the state’s education bureaucracy.

The position was rocked after allegations that former Commissioner Tony Bennett — the hand-picked appointee of Gov. Rick Scott — had increased the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican donor during his previous job as Indiana’s elected schools chief.

Indiana, like Florida, ranks schools using A-F grades. Bennett resigned in 2013 amid national attention, saying that Scott and Florida’s schoolchildren “don’t deserve this distraction.”

“We continually say that education is the most important thing to our state,” Mayfield said. “To me, it rises to the level of being an elected position so we have one person that is responsible for the direction of policy and what’s going on in our state.”

She pointed to the growing “opt-out” movement of frustrated parents seeking to exempt their children from what they say is an onerous system of high-stakes testing, as well as discontent with the Common Core curriculum.

“We’re in an environment where people are not listening to what the parents want for their children,” Mayfield said. “Sometimes we forget that the children don’t belong to the state, and they don’t belong to the federal government. They belong to the parents.

“Putting back as an elected position would at least give the parents a say in the person that is going to lead the direction for the education and the policy in the state of Florida,” she said. “It’s just as important as a commissioner of agriculture. It’s just as important as CFO. It’s just as important as an attorney general, and it’s just as important as the governor.”

Before the position was abolished by voters in 2002, the education commissioner was the most reliably Democratic post on the Cabinet. Is Mayfield, a Republican, concerned her proposal may increase Democratic influence in the executive branch?

“Any position that’s elected … could be Democratic. That’s what’s great about this country,” she said. “People go vote for the person that has the same ideas they believe in.

“If a Democrat is elected to the position and the Republicans get upset over that, then they should be upset with themselves. They didn’t get out there and work hard enough to promote their ideas as to why a Republican should be a commissioner of education,” Mayfield said.

The bill will likely face opposition in many quarters of GOP-led Tallahassee, not least from the Scott administration.

Mayfield said she would also consider asking the next Constitutional Review Commission to take up the proposal should it fail next year.

The Florida Constitution provides for the commission to meet every 20 years to consider revisions to the state’s guiding document. It will next convene in 2017-2018.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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