Gerard Robinson was the first person in his family to go to college. In fact, he almost didn’t go to college because he was too concerned with “chasing girls, partying and playing football.”
Now he’s in charge of one of the biggest K-12 public school systems in the country, overseeing 3,700 schools that serve about 2.6 million school children.
The State Board of Education unanimously voted Tuesday to hire Robinson, the secretary of education for Virginia, as Florida Education Commissioner. Robinson, who holds a master’s degree from Harvard, was the president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-school choice group, and is seen as ideologically aligned with reforms pushed by Republicans, such as vouchers and charter schools.
Robinson has also been a member of Chiefs for Change, a subsidiary reform organization of 10 state school chiefs under Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence. Eric Smith, the former Florida education commissioner, is part of the Chiefs for Change.
“Mr. Robinson’s personal story is pretty compelling and it’s a good example for many other students or children that are in our education system that can see a role model in Mr. Robinson,” said State Board of Education Vice Chair Roberto Martinez. “I wasn’t exactly a great student myself when I was growing up.”
But in picking Robinson, the six-member board is also placing a bet on someone who has never managed a large organization before. As secretary of education for Virginia, Robinson advises the governor on education policy. He oversees a small staff of four, unlike Florida’s education commissioner who oversees nearly 1,000 employees.
The board dismissed four other candidates who had all flown in for interviews with the State Board of Education in Tampa on Monday. Those finalists were: Bret Schundler, the former New Jersey education commissioner; Thomas Jandris, an education policy expert and head of the graduate programs at Chicago’s Concordia University; Loretta Costin, the head of the career and adult education programs; and Stacia Smith, head of the Clark County, Ohio, Education Service Center.
The unseen hand in the selection of Robinson was Gov. Rick Scott.
Board members said Scott weighed in on the final pick. Indeed, an hour after Robinson was picked as commissioner, Scott’s staff released a photo of the governor meeting with Robinson in his office and a lengthy press release extolling Robinson’s achievements and support of school choice programs.
A spokesman for Scott didn’t say when Scott met with Robinson.
Board members said Scott was consulted on the decision. “I spoke to the governor about the selection,” Martinez said. “I spoke to him last night and I spoke to him a few weeks ago.”
But Martinez said there was nothing “nefarious” about Scott’s involvement. He said the board’s decision was ultimately theirs and not Scott’s. “It’s not a matter of signing off,” Martinez said. “Certainly in his conversation with me (Scott) didn’t say ‘You have to vote for this and vote for that.’ It’s not the way it’s done.”
Scott allegedly pushed out the last education commissioner, Eric Smith. His resignation prompted controversy because he was popular as commissioner and supported many of the education reform efforts backed by the Legislature, such as the new teacher merit pay law that ties salaries to student test scores.
Scott’s relationship with the State Board of Education has improved since, Martinez said.
Robinson’s selection sparked an avalanche of supportive press releases from education stakeholders, from the State University System to private colleges and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
A statement issued by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell called him a “national leader in the field of education reform and innovation.” McDonnell said Robinson had overseen the implementation of efforts to expand charter schools, improve virtual school programs and start a performance pay pilot program.
One question is how much buy-in Robinson will get with the state’s teachers.
“We have a cordial, working relationship with him here,” said the Virginia teachers’ union.
Typically, unions oppose many of the school reforms backed by Florida’s Republican leadership because they are seen as taking funding away from public schools in favor of private or charter schools.
Martinez said Robinson’s lack of management experience didn’t count against him. “We have a very strong leadership team here in place. This is a very active board,” Martinez said. “That is not an issue.”
Robinson will face a steep learning curve when arriving in Florida. Virginia did not participate in Race to the Top and has not participated in the effort to develop national standards in language arts and mathematics.
Board members praised Robinson’s willingness to tackle issues like dropout prevention. During his interview Monday, Robinson stressed to the board his interest in improving Florida’s graduation rates.
“I think we can do a better job,” Robinson told the board. He also made clear his support for school choice programs in Florida, but said he doesn’t pretend that school choice programs are “a silver bullet.”
“We have passed a lot of reforms in the last couple of years,” Martinez said. “Some are being implemented, some are about to be implemented. What we need right now is to faithfully and energetically implement all of those reforms. And I was convinced that he is the right person to do that at this point in time.”
–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive