20 for 20 in local tax referenda: public education is much more popular than Richard Corcoran. Don’t fear him; use him.

Here’s a wild election stat. My dear friend and newly elected Polk County School Board Member Sarah Fortney — a long-time teacher and forceful advocate for the people who do the work in public education — won 120,176 votes in November. Her opponent, of whom I also think highly, won 77,519 votes.

Now, let’s the look at the most votes Richard Corcoran has ever won in an election.

Did you see that? 9,676. Sarah Fortney’s 2018 margin of victory was almost 600 percent larger than the total number of votes Richard Corcoran received in his best ever electoral performance. The man Sarah beat got almost 800 percent more votes than Corcoran’s best ever performance. And yet, for two years, Corcoran has sought to wield dictatorial control of the state’s most important institutions. And the sheep that surround him have let him.

They allow him to dictate to and punish the exponentially more people represented by local elected officials everywhere.

In that undemocratic dictation, Corcoran is just a particularly nasty manifestation of the fundamental disconnect between governing and the will of the people in Florida. It has been this way for a long time. At this point, Tallahassee is essentially a House of Lords, but with great power.

This is a deep, profound flaw in the representative structure of state and local government. It is terrible for the very idea of representative democracy — or even republicanism. It’s a recipe for endless casual corruption and cynicism. But that’s not what I’m dwelling on today.

24-for-24 versus 0-for-everything

Today, I want to point out the depth of Richard Corcoran’s failure to build popular support for his destructive education program. I want to point how every time that program — itself — faced voters Corcoran lost and public education won. Every time voters were given the clear option to support egalitarian public education as a public good — or to support educators as vital human infrastructure — they did so.

Take a look.

Local communities in Florida — including Polk — went 24 for 24 in 2018 in approving referenda that asked for taxation (20 for 20) or governance model restructuring (4 for 4) in support of local public education. 24 for 24. Let me say that again: 20 for 20 in taxation votes for public education.  That is the least examined — and most potentially explosive — political outcome of the election season.

Here are the details, as provided by the Florida School Board Association.

And here’s an account of Corcoran’s multi-layered failures:

  • Voters rejected in many ways Corcoran’s relentless attack on the right of local communities to decide their own public resources as a whole. They slapped down his additional homestead exemption amendment, which was one of the only amendments to fail in an election year in which the public seemed ready to vote for anything.
  • Voters rejected Corcoran personally — and people he backed — in a resounding, humiliating way. Corcoran spent $3 million to poll at 3 percent against Adam Putnam and DeSantis before he slinked away.  Then he endorsed Adam just in time to see DeSantis surge into an easy victory.
  • Most of Corcoran’s very few allies in locally-elected School Boards either lost (Martin County’s Rebecca Negron, wife of former Senate President Joe Negron; or Manatee County’s governor-appointed John Colon) or have left their boards (Indian River’s Shawn Frost). Here’s a tweet from the Republican stronghold of Collier County:

Thus, Florida’s public education advocates had a much, much better education season than Richard Corcoran, who failed spectacularly, politically and popularly, at basically everything he touched. And yet, of course, like everyone in Florida’s leadership class seems to, he failed upward to lead DoE.

DeSantis’ unforced Corcoran error

Many of my fellow Florida education and teacher advocates see Corcoran’s DoE ascendance as a death knell for public schools. I don’t. Certainly, they are right that he’s coming to destroy your public schools. Any honest reading of his record and approach shows that. The question is not his intent; it’s his capability. Corcoran is good at navigating Tallahassee’s dark money gargoyle class of hangers-on and consultants and half-journalists. He’s good at convincing the Swamp that he’s powerful. But that’s about it.

We can all certainly expect that Corcoran’s pursuit of teacher-hatred, starvation budgets, commitment to bogus accountability, choice fraud, and just basic not-being-good-at-his-job are going to continue.

But I think all of that is more likely to destroy both the dead Florida model and Ron DeSantis’ governorship than it is to dismantle and privatize community public education as a whole. Indeed, this sure looks like an unforced political error by the new governor. He’s embracing massive risk for no obvious benefit. Attacking public schools in rural communities, which are very much in Corcoran’s crosshairs, will not make DeSantis more popular with his base voters.

DeSantis could have appointed somebody less openly hostile, who would have blurred lines and said all the right things. There are plenty of educrats with the basic sense to let everyone go on pretending that there is some sort of relationship between Tallahassee local communities and the will of the public as it regards public education. Frank Brogan’s recent dishonest, low energy speech to the Florida School Board Association, which I’m going to return to in subsequent post, is a perfect example. Brogan’s tone and rhetoric are politically smart and confusing to the public. Confusion is the most powerful weapon of “corporate reformer” class. Dishonesty is a very effective political tool.

But because the governor-elect doesn’t seem to understand much about anything, DeSantis chose to hire a pirate with no crew to go openly plunder a fleet of ships that doesn’t realize its own power. Again, if past is prologue, Corcoran will leave all of us no choice but to fire back. And we have greater popular firepower, if we only realize it.

Twenty communities did not vote to tax themselves for public education so that Ron DeSantis and Richard Corcoran could destroy and siphon off those investments in their kids and teachers. I think DeSantis has walked himself into a trap that has no political upside for him. But we’ll see. It depends on whether any politician has the talent and will to exploit it.

A winning policy mantra: “End test-and-punish/Common Core era. Rebuild the teaching profession. End accountability and choice fraud. Support all choices as equally valid. Enough” 

So how come 24-for-24 and all those pro-public education, anti-fraudulent Florida Model outcomes did not lead to change at the top of the state?

I see two easy answers to that.

  1. The first is obvious: 2018 turned into a heavily partisan, Seminoles-Gators-style turnout battle. It’s incredible to look at rigidity of margin in various elections, especially in Polk. People got their identities bound up in the parties. It was my team versus your team — and actual issues didn’t matter much, if at all, in races that had letters by names.
  2. However, I think there’s an even more important reason, which bears on the first: this was yet another gubernatorial election that did not offer a real choice — beyond rhetoric — on Florida’s education model. No one said: END THIS FRAUDULENT ANTI-HUMAN MODEL THAT HURTS ALL KIDS OF ALL RACES, CREEDS, AND PARTIES. Personalities and team loyalties drove this election, not issues. Education barely showed up in the debates. No politician could be bothered, for instance, to run on the teacher shortage and Pam Stewart’s openly videoed contempt for doing anything to address it. Not in any real, repetitive way. Repetition and clarity is vital to political success. MAGA anyone?

To create change, politicians have to offer real, visceral choice

Education advocates are sometimes too quick to blame voters for not understanding how their revulsion at the experience imposed by Tallahassee connects to the partisan politicians they continually support. Why do those voters keep sending those people back when they hate what they do? Because other politicians haven’t made the connection clear enough over a long enough time.

It is the job of the politician to explain the failure, wrap it relentlessly around the neck of the failed politician, and offer a clear alternative. That’s how you win. The public is confused on the politics of education because the rhetoric and patterns of responsibility are deeply confusing, by design. Until politicians run on real, confrontational, clear choice in education, this will likely be the status quo.  That is why Corcoran as DoE leader is helpful, in my view. It’s clarifying.

Andrew Gillum was a very good candidate.

He’s charismatic, quick on his feet, charming. He did better than any other Democratic candidate would have done, I think. He had good command of national politics and issues. And he paid decent lip service to education. But he didn’t hammer it viscerally. He didn’t effectively and relentlessly tap into the source of popular power that elected me and Sarah Fortney in 2016 and 2018 in red county landslides. He didn’t tap into 24-for-24. He didn’t tap into the rejection of Corcoran’s dead model that I hear everywhere I go.

If Gillum had done the photo negative of what Jeb Bush did in 1998. If he called for fundamental, structural change as he visited a school every day; if he had called for destroying the fraudulent and irrelevant test model in Florida and rebuilding it around human development; if he had wrapped every abuse around Rick Scott and Richard Corcoran and Pam Stewart, I think he would have gotten those extra few thousand votes he needed to win. And that would have been completely consistent with the progressive populism he supports. It’s also consistent with honest conservatism. Imagine that. The politics of education do not conform to our national tribal politics.

And such confrontation with the fraudulent, irrelevant model would have also forced Florida’s education leaders to react to it. Kelli Stargel was the least harmful she has ever been in the last 18 months because Bob Doyel and I helped keep endless scrutiny on her. It will continue. That’s the value of confrontation, win or lose.

But if you want to win in 2022, as a gubernatorial candidate, start practicing this easy bit of language: End the test-and-punish/Common Core era. Rebuild the teaching profession. End accountability and choice fraud. Support all choices as equally valid. Enough. 

Richard Corcoran is going to provide endless material to use against his boss and legislators. Make them own all of it. It’s the only way to save and regenerate meaningful public education. Elections are always a lagging indicator of public opinion. And it won’t be the Legislature that ends and rebuilds this model; it will be a mobilized public that leaves elected officials no choice.