All Eyes on Florida’s New Education Commissioner

Real Clear Policy | By Robert Pondiscio | May 3, 2022

Last Friday, Florida’s State Board of Education voted to approve Republican Senator Manny Diaz, Jr. the state’s new education commissioner. Diaz makes history as Florida’s first Hispanic education commissioner.

He is also, on Day One, the most important and closely watched state education chief in the country. His new boss, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, has his eye on the White House in 2024; the Governor’s political appeal and personal brand rests heavily on education, particularly a series of controversial measures exerting the state’s authority over controversial curriculum content. It will fall to Diaz to communicate, execute, and enforce these polarizing initiatives. His success or failure may therefore exert an outsize effect of DeSantis’ national reputation and political fortunes.

Diaz brings a strong education background to the job. He’s a former high school social studies teacher who began his teaching career at the same high school from which he graduated, before moving to another local school where he rose to become an assistant principal. To this day, he is still certified to teach in Florida. At the same time, he’s a staunch champion of school choice and worked as a legislator representing the Miami-Dade area to expand access to Florida’s many public scholarship programs and to grow the state’s charter school sector. First elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2012, he served three terms before winning his Senate seat in 2018. Most recently he was the Senate sponsor of House Bill 7, aimed at curbing “corporate wokeness” and eliminating critical race theory from Florida schools. Diaz stood alongside DeSantis at a signing ceremony for the bill two weeks ago. “I’m clearly straight in line with his ideology and we have been that way since he took office,” Diaz told me in an interview shortly before the state board accepted DeSantis’s recommendation last week.

As a senator, Diaz supported Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, famously derided by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which forbids schools from teaching lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity in grade K-3 classes, or at any grade level if not deemed age-appropriate. “We have to let kids be kids,” Diaz argued on the Senate floor in favor of the measure he will now be responsible for implementing. “There are topics that our kids are not mature enough to grasp.” Similar parental rights bills have been introduced in dozens of states, ensuring further scrutiny of the effects of the Florida law on which most of those measures have been modeled.

Overlooked entirely in national coverage of these “culture war” measures is Florida’s decision to eliminate its multi-day state tests and replace them with a “progress monitoring system” that will assess students three times a year through tests that take a few hours instead of a few days. The intention is to reduce time spent on testing although critics, including the state’s teachers’ unions, insist the new system will have the opposite effect and increase time spent on testing. It will fall to Diaz to make good on DeSantis’ promise that the new system will be less burdensome and provide more timely and individualized feedback to students, teachers, and parents.

Florida ranks among the most school choice-friendly state in the nation. Nearly half the state’s children attend schools other than an assigned local public school. When I met first met Diaz two years ago, he was one of several Florida Republicans predicting the state would be the first universal choice state in the country — a prediction he tempered when we spoke last week. “There are legislative leaders that have that vision,” he said. “That’s an ongoing conversation, I’d like to have with the governor to see what his vision is going forward on choice programs.”

But without question, the national spotlight will shine the brightest on Florida as Diaz oversees implementation of the spate of new laws exerting the state’s authority on classroom content, which has implications far beyond the state’s classroom: those measures are central to DeSantis’s brand. Diaz sounded unphased by the high stakes when we spoke last week. “My goal is to have conversations with superintendents, school board members, with parents, teachers, and stakeholders about what it means, and to make sure that we are teaching our standards and that we’re not having material in there that violates the law,” he said. “Despite all of the noise around it, the aim and the goal of these pieces of legislation are pretty clear.”

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he focuses on K–12 education, curriculum, teaching, school choice, and charter schooling

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