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Diaz says he wants to change the tone around what it means to be a teacher amid statewide shortages

Miami-Dade Republican Senator Manny Diaz speaks at a press conference in support of the Family Empowerment Scholarship during the 2019 legislative session. Diaz is mulling a future run for Florida Senate president.
Ryan Dailey
Miami-Dade Republican Senator Manny Diaz speaks at a press conference in support of the Family Empowerment Scholarship during the 2019 legislative session. Diaz is mulling a future run for Florida Senate president.

Soon-to-be Education Commissioner Manny Diaz has worn many hats in his career, starting with teaching geography, history, social studies and psychology at public high schools in Miami. Today, he’s a Republican state Senator from Hialeah and works as the Vice President of Finance for Doral College. Diaz is also a staunch supporter of school choice which he says is falsely equated as being against public schools.

Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, says he remains a certified teacher in the state of Florida. Even though his career has taken him far from the public high school classrooms where he started. Diaz was recently recommended by Gov. Ron DeSantis to become state education commissioner. He’ll replace Richard Corcoran, who steps down at the end of this month. Diaz says while he’s no longer in the classroom, the experiences stick with him.

“What I learned are the two most important things in a school are leadership—the person in charge, the principal, and the quality of teacher in the classroom. And when I say quality, I mean a well-rounded teacher that’s not only able to connect with students, but incentivize them to get into learning, to get into discussions, to get them to critically think.”  

One of the reasons Diaz says he turned to the choice movement is also because of his experience in public schools. Diaz says he taught honors courses, and also worked with kids who were at-risk of dropping out. As an administrator, he also saw more of the parent side of things.

“What was frustrating to me is, a lot of time the customer service wasn’t there. A lot of times there was the attitude of ‘what are you going to do? You have no choice. It’s not like you can take your child to some other school.’ You have to have a special permission to transfer. I think a lot of those things were archaic. They were hurting  the quality of our schools.”

Diaz acknowledges the tension between school choice advocates and traditional public school supporters. He’s sponsored a series of legislative proposals that increases tuition assistance to parents who want to send their kids to private schools. He’s backed charter school expansion. But he rejects the binary of either traditional schools or private and charters.

“When you say choice, we’re not talking about one choice or the other. I think our job in the legislature has been to allow parents the opportunity to choose, not for us to drive students to one particular setting or another, but to have a quilt of options that parents can choose," he said.

It’s clear where Diaz stands on the issue. He is set to assume control of the Florida Department of Education amid an ongoing and deepening exodus of teachers from schools. The shortages are most pronounced in public schools, but even private schools and charters are struggling to find people. Teaching has taken big hits in recent years—even this past legislative session saw teachers vilified over allegations of trying to indoctrinate children or worse-calling them “groomers” a term used to describe people who try to abuse children. Diaz acknowledges that sort of talk doesn’t do anything to encourage people to go into the profession, and he wants to change the tone around teaching.

“I hate to use such a simplistic term but How do you make teaching cool again? Because this is a profession a lot of women went into and they were respected for the work they were doing, and it’s become—you’re right, there are some critics.”

His predecessor, Richard Corcoran, was a bold, outspoken commissioner who often clashed publicly and loudly with some school district superintendents and the state teachers union. Diaz is aware that many traditional school backers are watching him with wary eyes. He and DeSantis are in alignment with their pro-choice views of education, but Diaz says he plans to lead differently from Corcoran and calls himself a "blank slate."

“Whether we agree or disagree, that’s part of the process. I’m going to be open, I’m going to have conversations and I’m going to listen. We may not agree, we may never agree. But I am going to open and accessible, and I look forward to pushing for the teachers in our classroom and our schools, but ultimately at the benefit of our students," he said.

The State Board of Education will take up the governor’s recommendation for Diaz to become state education commissioner on Friday.

<a href="https://twitter.com/HatterLynn?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw" class="twitter-follow-button" data-show-count="false">Follow @HatterLynn</a><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <br><br> Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative.  <br><br> Find <a href="https://news.wfsu.org/people/lynn-hatter">complete bio, contact info, and more stories</a> here.