Nate Monroe: Tallahassee Hacks Squawk While Teachers Do the Work

Duval County Schools Superintendent Diana Greene talks with State Board of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Sept. 19 (Photo Bob Self (Florida Times Union)

By Nate Monroe Florida Times-Union – During the week Florida re-opened its public schools amid a pandemic with no end in sight, Duval County Superintendent Diana Greene rolled up her sleeves and spent most of the first day teaching third graders, placing herself in the same uncertain environment the district’s many professionals must now face every day.

Education commissioner Richard Corcoran, meanwhile, took a victory lap on Fox News and CNN on Friday from safer confines. No class time for him.

One of these two people, in other words, walks the walk. The other is just a loud mouth.

And yet it’s not Greene who had the ultimate authority to decide what was best for Jacksonville teachers, students and their families. Corcoran, an unelected bureaucrat, took it upon himself to order public schools across the entire state to bend to his will, robbing local communities of the chance to figure out the safest and best way to re-open schools.

Corcoran, who has neither a background in education nor in public health, is one of a litter of former Tallahassee politicians who once railed against government largess only to find themselves in receipt of taxpayer gifts of their own: High-profile, lucrative jobs in the Gov. Ron DeSantis administration.

Corcoran, a charter school evangelist, possesses a palpable dislike for public education and the professionals who work in it, which most people might think makes him an odd choice to lead Florida’s education policy. On a Fox News appearance Friday, for example, Corcoran chortled about firing teachers who don’t show up to school out of concern for COVID-19. But in his glee to humiliate and intimidate school teachers, Corcoran got ahead of himself: He comically had to walk the statement back, according to Florida Politics, because it turns out only superintendents — not he — can fire teachers. Big government has apparently gone to the man’s head.

Predictably, Corcoran, a former gubernatorial candidate, has treated his position — and the fate of Florida schools — the way a politician would: As a platform for self-aggrandizement. For Corcoran, and his patron saint, DeSantis, schools were simply another vehicle to demonstrate their skepticism about the seriousness of this pandemic and to peddle their bizarre fantasy the crisis has turned out better in Florida than simple, observable reality demonstrates (Florida officially surpassed 10,000 dead from COVID-19 this week).

Their callousness is only thinly masked. DeSantis and Corcoran, for example, preached the gospel in the run up to school re-openings about the importance of youth athletic programs, particularly for “students from underprivileged backgrounds that are looking to use sports to advance their education.” And indeed, athletics are an important part of many students’ lives.

So it’s odd that DeSantis, Corcoran and generations of Tallahassee Republicans have done everything in their power for decades to steer public money and students away from traditional public schools that must offer athletic programs into private schools and charters that do not have such a requirement. In fact, many students who do attend private and charter schools rely on programs offered at the neighborhood public schools  — institutions Tallahassee is systematically bleeding dry.

It’s those very “students from underprivileged backgrounds” in struggling public schools that charter and voucher boosters often are most eager to send to alternative schools. So, if DeSantis and Corcoran were taken at their word, this would seem to be a serious indictment of Florida education policy.

And does this even need to be said? It’s quite rich for the governor of a state that has eviscerated its safety net, with one of the highest rates of uninsured people in the nation, that has propped up its tourism economy on low-wage labor, to shed crocodile tears over “students from underprivileged backgrounds” who might miss out on sports and, hence, apparently their only chance to escape a life of despair — as if Florida could do nothing else to help struggling families but offer them tee-ball sets.

There’s even more magical thinking at work: Corcoran and DeSantis also seem to have convinced themselves that — since COVID-19 generally is less severe in young people — re-opening schools will not in any way increase the risk of spread in every community in Florida.

DeSants, who attended Harvard and Yale, surely has a firm enough grasp on simple physics, human social structure and common sense to understand that re-opening schools already has increased the risk of spread. He can do the math. He knows he’s rolling the dice.

But Corcoran? Maybe he needs to go back to school.

Nate Monroe’s City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.

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