Pam Stewart named state education commissioner

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the state Board of Education named interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to lead the department on a permanent basis.

It was a rare moment of harmony in an otherwise acrimonious meeting.

Earlier, outgoing board member Kathleen Shanahan blasted department leaders for not giving clear direction on the new Common Core State Standards, and delaying a decision on which exams will replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.

Shanahan also addressed rumors that Gov. Rick Scott was planning to unveil education policy directives of his own, saying it would be “embarrassing” for the governor to circumvent the Board of Education.

“We’re in crisis time,” said Shanahan, a one-time chief of staff to former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Stewart tried to assuage the concerns, insisting the department was only in “a time of urgency.”

“We are on track to get where we need to be,” Stewart said.

Tuesday’s meeting came at a critical moment for state education leaders.

For the first time, educators across Florida are teaching the new benchmarks known as the Common Core. But a growing number of conservative lawmakers and organizations have come out against the national standards, and state Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, has filed a bill to pause the rollout.

On Tuesday, board member Sally Bradshaw asked her colleagues to reaffirm their support of Common Core.

“There is some sense, because the governor’s office has not given great direction, that there is uncertainty,” said Bradshaw, also a former chief of staff to Bush. “It would help me if we, as a board, could reiterate our support for the Common Core Standards.”

The board obliged.

“The commissioner is fully in support and not wavering at all,” added Chairman Gary Chartrand. “I think we move forward.”

But there was less clarity on which tests will accompany the standards.

Florida lawmakers have put pressure on the education department to withdraw from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a multi-state consortium drawing up new national exams. They are advocating for a Florida-specific testing plan instead.

Former Education Commissioner Tony Bennett had wanted the board to choose a path this summer. But Stewart said she was not likely to make a recommendation until March.

“Florida is the fiscal agent for PARCC and we take that very seriously,” Stewart said, noting the state’s responsibility for the consortium’s finances. “But we need to make sure that we are keeping every avenue open.”

The new timeline troubled Shanahan, who pointed out that the education department would have just six months between making the decision and the start of the 2014-15 school year, when the tests would be launched.

Added board member John Padget: “Those of us on the board that have had the privilege of having large private organizations realize that with a change of this magnitude, there are always hiccups.”

The debate led to a tense exchange between Shanahan and Chartrand, who defended Stewart.

“Do you see the timeline issue?” Shanahan asked.

“We can’t go back in time,” Chartrand replied. “We had a commissioner change, unfortunately.”

“These are not new issues, Gary. We’ve been raising this timeline for two years.”

“And you were chair for part of that time,” Chartrand quipped.

There was also disagreement as to when the department would review the school grading system and the new model for evaluating teachers, both of which have come under fire.

Said Bradshaw: “We’re really counting on this department to step it up on these things.”

The wild card remained what action — if any — the governor would take.

Chartrand was not surprised by Shanahan’s reference to a potential executive order, but did not offer up any details. “I suspect to hear something from him, and he’ll do it at the time that’s appropriate, that he sees fit,” he said.

Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz acknowledged Scott might take action after holding an education summit in August.

“The discussion and ideas generated at the summit will guide our future decisions and steps we will take through either legislative proposals, action by the State Board of Education or executive action to ensure Florida students are prepared for college or careers,” she wrote in a statement.

The board will now look to Stewart for leadership.

Stewart, 60, has experience at the helm of the state education department. She had been interim commissioner since Bennett resigned in August. She also held the post following the 2012 departure of former commissioner Gerard Robinson.

Board member John Colon called Stewart “a steady hand, considering all of the handicaps she’s been going through.”

Stewart said she was glad to accept the challenge.

“I’ve spent 32 years in Florida’s public education system in one way or another, so I am fully committed to the students in the state of Florida and making sure we get it right,” she said.

Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.