Miami Herald | By Bianca Padró Ocasio, Ana Ceballos and Jeffrey S. Solochek, HERALD/TIMES TALLAHASSEE BUREAU | April 21, 2022
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday recommended Hialeah state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., who has a long history of supporting conservative education issues, to lead the state’s Department of Education.
Diaz, an ardent supporter of school choice, has helped change the education landscape in Florida by championing legislation that expands access to vouchers and charter schools. If confirmed by the State Board of Education, he is expected to continue expanding school choice, and would oversee the implementation of several contentious education laws passed this year by the Republican-led Legislature.
DeSantis, who has made education a cornerstone of his political agenda, described Diaz as a lawmaker who has fought for “educational choice and keeping indoctrination out of our schools.”
“Manny Diaz has done a great job in the Legislature on education issues ranging from teacher pay to parental rights and choice,” DeSantis said in a statement. “I am confident that he will serve our state well as the commissioner of education.”
Current Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced in March that he planned to step down by the end of April. When Corcoran mentioned Diaz as a possible replacement, it caused a buzz in education circles. Now that DeSantis has made the formal recommendation, some Democrats have raised concerns about the future of Florida’s education system.
“Sen. Diaz is someone who has been a fervent leader in privatization of public education,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, one of the Legislature’s most liberal members. “I’m concerned it’s going to be more of the same partisan weaponization of education.”
Diaz declined to be interviewed by the Miami Herald. But in a prepared statement, he said he was “excited to get to work continuing the mission of the governor to make Florida the education state.”
“It is an honor to be recommended by Governor DeSantis to serve as the education commissioner,” Diaz said. “For my entire career I have worked to improve the education system to serve Florida’s students, parents and teachers.”
Diaz’s departure from the state Senate, where he has served since 2018, is likely to trigger a political domino effect in Miami-Dade’s Republican circles as new candidates emerge to replace him.
The State Board of Education would have to approve the governor’s recommendation. The state board did not conduct a search for Corcoran, whom DeSantis also recommended in 2018. It did hold national searches that yielded Gerard Robinson and Tony Bennett during the Rick Scott administration.
DIAZ LIKELY TO OVERSEE PIVOTAL EDUCATION POLICIES
Diaz has led several education committees in the Florida Senate and Florida House. He has spearheaded legislation on several DeSantis legislative priorities, including voucher expansions and the “individual freedoms” bill that deals with the teaching of race issues.
If confirmed, Diaz would lead the implementation of a laundry list of new policies that are key parts of DeSantis’ education agenda. He will oversee the implementation of a new progress monitoring test system for public school students called the Florida Assessment of Student Thinking, or FAST. It replaces the Florida Statewide Assessment tests for K-12 students.
He will also have a say on the approach of the newly-signed state law “Parental Rights in Education,” dubbed by critics as the “don’t say gay” law, which prohibits teachers from leading lessons on gender identity or sexual orientation in K-3rd grades and bans lessons for older students that aren’t “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said in a statement he was supportive of Diaz’s appointment, calling it “tremendous.”
“The Senate’s loss would certainly be Florida’s gain with Senator Diaz as our commissioner of education,” Simpson said. “I am confident Sen. Diaz is the right leader as we continue to implement historic school choice initiatives that will increase competition within our public school system.”
Madeline Pumariega, president of Miami Dade College and Diaz’s friend, pointed out in a statement that Diaz would be “the first Hispanic in the position” and applauded the recommendation.
“Senator Manny Diaz has been an advocate for students and education in Florida throughout his entire public service career. He has been a steadfast champion of our community, educational institutions and our students,” Pumariega said, adding Diaz “will be a great commissioner.”
Citrus County schools Superintendent Sam Himmel, president of the state superintendents association, said it appeared DeSantis has faith in Diaz, with whom she had no working relationship.
“I would fully expect the board to have a discussion and do their own research … once they get the recommendation sent to them,” Himmel said.
FORMER EDUCATOR IN MIAMI-DADE
Diaz is a top administrator at Doral College, a private college affiliated with Academica, a Miami-based for-profit corporation that provides administrative services to charter schools. He has held that post since 2013.
Doral College was created in 2010 to offer advanced courses at charter schools, including Somerset Academy schools. Somerset Academy Inc. came under scrutiny earlier this year as it was coming off a five-year arrangement that put the struggling Jefferson County school system under its control. The arrangement was the first and only time Florida has had an all-charter school district.
Somerset’s contract was set to expire June 30, and it opted against extending the contract. The district is still facing “extreme turnover of instructional staff” and “extremely low proficiency” in math and reading among the majority of students, according to the company’s own assessment.
At the same time, the state Department of Education was found to have attempted to steer the multimillion dollar contract to a politically connected company whose CEO had ties to Corcoran.
When asked about the situation in January, Diaz told a WFSU reporter that the charter school experiment’s outcomes had other factors at play. “Number one, geographically it [Jefferson] really is far away and it’s difficult,” he said. Jefferson County is just east of Tallahassee and Leon County.
Diaz, whose political committee is called “Better Florida Education,” has been an advocate of school choice and charter schools during his time in the Legislature.
In January 2021, Diaz was accused by several former students at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High of acting inappropriately around girls while he was a teacher, including by making comments on girls’ appearances and talking to his students about doing ecstasy at Miami clubs. At the time, Diaz denied the allegations and said the attacks were politically motivated, “baseless and defamatory.”
Diaz taught social studies at Hialeah-Miami Lakes for four years starting in 1995 and went on to become an assistant principal there for two years.
The expected Diaz exit from the Florida Senate could have political ripple effects in local politics, too. Rep. Bryan Avila, a Republican ally of Diaz, is currently running for Miami-Dade County Commission to succeed a term-limited Rebeca Sosa in District 6. But the lawmaker might switch to try and succeed Diaz in the Senate, opening up the race for a county seat where Avila was the lone candidate until recently.
Avila did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Herald about his plans regarding Diaz’s potentially vacant Senate seat.
Since March, two candidates have filed for District 6: Dariel Fernandez, a Miami-Dade Republican Committee member and owner of a software company, and Orlando Lamas, a Republican and an architect who was running for Avila’s open House seat before switching to the District 6 race in March.
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.