TALLAHASSEE — The State Board of Education on Friday confirmed Manny Diaz Jr., a Republican lawmaker from Hialeah and staunch school choice advocate, as Florida’s next education commissioner.
The 49-year-old will take the helm of the state Department of Education on June 1. Diaz said he plans to keep his “foot on the pedal” on many education issues that Gov. Ron DeSantis and outgoing education commissioner Richard Corcoran have prioritized in the last four years.
“We can’t be complacent,” Diaz said. “The best defense is to go on offense. We should always be on offense, looking to improve the lives of the students of the state.”
Diaz will come in as the state Department of Education prepares to implement several contentious measures approved by Republican lawmakers earlier this year. Those include an overhaul of the state’s K-12 testing system, which Diaz says is a priority of his, and potential changes to instruction in grades four to 12 on issues of gender identity and sexual orientation.
DeSantis said the Department of Education will be giving input soon on what instruction would be considered “age-appropriate” for older grades on those topics. In an interview earlier this year, Diaz said he would conduct a “full review” of curriculum in those grades and “lay it out” for the Legislature for possible legislative action.
DeSantis had stronger words, when he was asked about future action, during a Fox News “Town Hall” on Thursday evening. He said, the “Florida Department of Education will be putting some meat on the bones” of Florida’s new “Parental Rights in Education” law, which critics have called the “don’t say gay” bill.
A look at Diaz’s background
The school culture war fights that have become so emblematic of DeSantis’ education agenda were not talked about much during Diaz’s confirmation hearing.
Most of the focus was on Diaz’s time as a coach, teacher and assistant principal in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the policy issues he spent a decade fighting for in the Legislature.
For years, Diaz has led the charge in expanding the charter school sector and school vouchers, which pay for students to attend private schools. He has sponsored legislation to increase Florida teachers’ minimum salaries to $47,500, a priority for DeSantis since he took office. And this year, Diaz sponsored legislation that limits what can be taught about racism and other aspects of history in public schools.
Some supporters brought signs to the hearing calling for publicly funded education savings accounts, which help families pay for private tuition and other expenses. Last year, Diaz sought to offer that option to families.
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Others praised his leadership style.
“He is the right leader for this moment,” Miami Dade College President Madeline Pumariega told the board. “He has the experience not only in the classroom, but the legislative and policy experience and the higher education experience.”
Bill Montford, the head of the Florida Association for District School Superintendents and a former Democratic state senator, agreed.
“He is a man of great integrity, he is a man who will listen to opposing views, and he will always do what is best for students,” he said. “He is a good man. He is exactly what we need.”
Advice from the man he’s succeeding
Corcoran added that Diaz’s legislative experience will be helpful to him on the new job.
“On every go-to issue we’ve had over the last four sessions, Manny Diaz has been front and center on every single one of them,” the former House speaker said.
His advice to Diaz: “Go out there and be Manny and keep doing what you’re doing, because he has accomplished a heckuva lot and he has made us look good over the last four years.”
Diaz has deep-rooted ties with charter school operators. He is currently a top executive at Doral College, a private nonprofit institution that offers advanced courses to charter schools, and that is affiliated with Academica, a for-profit contractor.
He pushed back that his close ties to charter schools will influence how he leads the department.
“Look at the body of work, legislatively, and where I came from,” he said, in reference to his time as a social studies public school teacher and assistant principal at Hialeah-Miami Lakes. “Public schools are important. … We are going to focus on the whole thing.”
The board voted unanimously to confirm Diaz after a 50-minute meeting in the state Capitol. He will be the first Hispanic commissioner of education in Florida, which the governor’s office touted when DeSantis first made the recommendation.
The confirmation hearing was scheduled by the board last Friday, a day after DeSantis recommended Diaz for the job. The board did not conduct a search for the state’s top education position, marking the second time the board confirmed a DeSantis education commissioner pick without a search.
Board chairperson Tom Grady announced Friday that Corcoran will be leaving the post effective May 1. Jacob Oliva, the state’s K-12 chancellor, will serve as interim commissioner during the transition period, he said.
Diaz will continue to serve in the Senate through May, which means he will be participating in a special session to address Florida’s failing property insurance market that is set for May 23-27.
Diaz’s salary has not been determined. The board agreed to allow Grady to “coordinate all details associated with his employment” directly with Diaz.