Robinson named as new state education chief

Tallahassee, FL – After a months-long search, Florida now has a new Commissioner of Education. Gerard Robinson is stepping down from his position as Virginia's Secretary of Education and stepping up to become Florida's new Education Commissioner. He was chosen from a field of 26 applicants. And as Lynn Hatter reports, he's got a lot of work to do before he gets here.

As Virginia's Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson works with that state's governor as an education policy advisor. He currently only has staff of four. But As Florida Education Commissioner, he'll have a staff of 400 at the Department of Education, along with 2.6 million public school students and state colleges to oversee. The stark contrast wasn't lost on board members who questioned his ability to manage such a transition but Robinson says he can do it.

" The great thing is, I know leaders and current chiefs who will tell you they don't run the day-to-day operations of the department of education. You hire strong chiefs of staff, support staff, which would free up my time to make sure the mission of the board is in place, support the strategic initiatives of the governor and work with the legislature and stakeholders to make sure we maintain our status."

Robinson worked his way through community college, later earning his bachelor's degree from Howard University and then a master's degree from Harvard. He's worked on education policy in California, Wisconsin and Washington D.C. But in his own words, he hasn't always been so education focused. He said in high school he was more concerned about chasing girls and playing football. And he also understands how students get pigeonholed in school.

"I was a victim of that myself, as an athlete being put on the athlete track. I wish I could tell you we can change it overnight. We often know who those kids are. It's often in the communities where there aren't strong advocates or parents don't know how to advocate for their children."

He says Florida should do better when it comes to educating minorities, especially young black males- a constituency that has the highest drop-out rate and lowest graduation rate in the state. Board Member John Padget cited those reasons for supporting Robertson as education commissioner.

"I find in this man the ability to relate and connect the dots in something I perceive to be very important in Florida."

Robinson was president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-school choice group. He's also a part of former Governor Jeb Bush's Chief's for Change: A group of high-profile education leaders who support education reform. But Robertson says, while he does support school choice options, he's not about leaving public schools in the dust.

"I don't pretend that school choice is a silver bullet, nor do I believe the money-only agenda will get us where we need to go."

The Virginia Education Association, a teacher's union, says it had a cordial relationship with Robinson. Union officials say they rarely interacted with him, and what few times they did meet were respectful but brief. Robinson has a different view.

"When you support school choice, it's tantamount to being the devil. I've been called everything from a voucher vulture, to a destroyer of public education. I've heard that for a number of years. If they turned around and looked at us differently, I think they'd say I've had success in schools I helped build, getting the first generation students into college. I've had a change to have success with students the traditional schools weren't able to do."

Robinson was appointed to his Virginia post in January 2010 by Governor Bob McDonnell, who said he was key in expanding charter schools and creating school vouchers, and implementing teacher merit pay. All are programs Florida pioneered decade ago. But there are only a handful of charter schools in Virginia, and teacher merit pay hasn't really caught on either.

The search for a new commissioner was highly-political following the departure of Eric Smith who resigned under pressure from Governor Rick Scott. But the governor says he's fully supportive of Robinson's appointment to the post. Florida Board of Education Vice Chairman Roberto Martinez said Robertson met with the Governor and the board prior to his official interview. He downplayed any potential influence made by Scott.

"It's a healthy thing to have the governor involved in the process. I'm very independent minded, I think my track record is pretty public on that issue. So no one is going to tell me what to do. I'm not going to do anything I think is against the best interests of the children."

Martinez said it's not unusual for governor's to be involved, noting Former Governor's Bush and Crist directly influenced commissioner hirings in the past. When Robertson gets to Florida he'll have a lot of work on his plate. He's got to begin work ahead of the early January start of the 2012 legislative session. He'll also have to hit the ground running as the state implements a 700-million dollar federal education "Race to the Top" grant, along with managing the transition to a national education curriculum. Virginia isn't participating in either program. For Florida Public Radio, I'm Lynn Hatter. For Florida Public Radio, I'm Lynn Hatter.