'Putting parents and students first': Diaz on being Florida's next education commissioner

'I’m not shy about the fact that I believe in (school) choice,' the outgoing Republican state senator said in an interview with City & State Florida

'I challenge anyone to go back and look at my entire body of work. Not only my career, but also legislation,' Diaz says.

'I challenge anyone to go back and look at my entire body of work. Not only my career, but also legislation,' Diaz says. The Florida Senate

In April, shortly before Florida’s previous education commissioner Richard Corcoran was set to step down from the job, Gov. Ron DeSantis offered an emphatic endorsement of Corcoran’s successor: Hialeah Republican Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. 

A Cuban-American lawmaker elected to the House in 2012 and subsequently to the Senate in 2018, Diaz has carried legislation that changed the landscape of Florida’s education system. 

He sponsored a 2019 measure that created the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which significantly expanded eligibility criteria for school-voucher recipients. DeSantis in March signed a Diaz-sponsored bill (SB 1048) from the 2022 legislative session that will overhaul the state’s system of standardized testing. And Diaz championed a 2017 bill to create known as “Schools of Hope” that allow charter school operators to take over operations at struggling public schools. 

As he is set to step into the state’s top education post in June, Diaz joined City & State Florida for a Q&A session about forthcoming challenges as commissioner, his time in the legislature and why the governor saw him as the man for the moment. (Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.) 

Q: You’re about to become the first Hispanic education commissioner in Florida’s history. What significance does that have to you?

DIAZ: Education is so important in the Hispanic community. So I think it's a great opportunity. The other thing that comes to mind is, I’m completely in awe and thankful of the sacrifices my parents made in immigrating to this country in the ‘60’s, to give me the opportunity to be born here. I was already in awe, to serve in the House, to serve in the Senate, and now this opportunity. So I think that clearly justifies their sacrifices. 

I think it gives me a different perspective. But at the same time, I want to focus on the things we need to do, and not have that be the first thing I think of. I’m grateful, I’m proud, and now it’s time to get to work.

Q: You’re coming into the job at a time when there is an ongoing teacher shortage in Florida. How do you respond?

DIAZ: Nationwide we are facing that (and) it’s been exacerbated by COVID. Across all sectors there’s a lack of employees, whether the nursing shortage, truck drivers – it’s across the board. And it just makes it that much harder and more difficult for teachers.

We’re in the process now of taking a look at all options. How do we both look outside the state and take advantage of the fact that people are moving here to Florida and want to be here, how do we maximize that? How do we go domestically, inside the state, and find people who may have been in another field that may have the skills that we can enhance to get them into the classroom?

And then the third part is, going right in the schoolhouse and finding individuals who may be doing other jobs in the classroom, whether it be teacher assistant, paraprofessionals, substitutes, and figure out how to incentivize them. And all this is not just money. Obviously we’ve made great strides with the historic funding for teacher salaries … We need to find the other things, and I’ve said this before, professional development, our teacher preparation programs. 

Q: You’ve sponsored legislation that has changed the state’s educational landscape. Is there one piece of legislation that stands out among the rest for you?

DIAZ: There’s two that stand out. One, because of the magnitude and the process, which was HB 7069 (a 2017 bill that created the “Schools of Hope” program), when I was the Education Appropriations chair in the House under (Richard) Corcoran’s speakership. Because of the volume of changes, and the drastic change in trying to pinpoint educational options, both from the charter side of high-performing charters going into these needy neighborhoods … and from the public school side. We created the community-based schools, in which funds are only available for district schools that are in kind of that same criteria.

And then, the other one is the Family Empowerment Scholarship in the 2019 session, working with (former Senate) President (Bill) Galvano and (former House) Speaker (Jose) Oliva to achieve a true scholarship for those students in need in our state. And the governor’s vision at that time (was) to end that waiting list (for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship). And I think that’s monumental, for parents, for students in this state.

Q: Advocates for traditional public schools have historically been wary of those with ties to the charter school industry, and some of those criticisms have been aimed at you. (Diaz has worked as an administrator for Doral College, a private school that is a part of Miami-based charter school company Academica. He also has worked as a public-school teacher and administrator.) How do you respond to those criticisms?

DIAZ: I think if you look at the body of work, the amount of time that I spent in my career in the public school system, and then my view of public schools — I think all of these things are options. We’ve got to remember that these students that attend charter schools, these are public school students. These are charters that are authorized through our public-school system. And they’re serving the very kids and taxpayers in those districts. 

I look at it as an even playing field, where we don’t push anybody in any direction. But we have the right options for parents to make those decisions. And again, I challenge anyone to go back and look at my entire body of work. Not only my career, but also legislation. When we’re talking about these community-based schools, the principal autonomy program, and a permanent categorical (allocation) for teacher salaries, all of these things directly affect our public schools.

There’s a balance. Most people want to highlight the one side of it. And I don’t have a problem with that. Look, I’m not shy about the fact that I believe in choice, whether it be charters, whether it be virtual, whether it be the scholarship programs, magnet schools (or) traditional neighborhood schools.

Q: Virtual education became a big topic of conversation in education during the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you see the role of virtual education in Florida schools?

DIAZ: Virtual education (is) a slice. It takes the right kind of student, the right situation. If you look at the success that Florida virtual schools have had in taking students who are very motivated and driven, sometimes they’re individual sport athletes, gymnasts, golfers or musicians. I think there’s a difference between having that option for the students who are motivated and incentivized and parents that have the ability to participate and help them, and pushing what we saw at the beginning of COVID where you’re pushing everyone towards virtual. 

Virtual is not for everyone. The best education for most students is still in-person and live, at the school site with their teacher.

Q: Some of the governor’s major priorities since he took office have been in education. What do you think it was about you that, to him, made you the right person to be the next state education commissioner?

DIAZ: Well, (DeSantis) is definitely the education governor … putting parents first, putting students first in our education system. At the same time, he’s shown that he’s willing to make bold steps in things like teacher pay and things that have to do with our public school system and improving it, as well as our college system. 

So I think just lining up in philosophy, a track record of experience, and on top of that, my track record in the legislature, (and) having the fortune to have more in-depth knowledge of these issues, which obviously suits a commissioner of education.

Q: You’ve been a baseball player on the high school and college level and coached at the high school level. Is athletics something you’re still passionate about? Does that factor into the new job?

DIAZ: Absolutely. Not only did I play high school and college baseball, and then coach baseball at the high school level, my son who graduated from college played high school and college baseball as well … I think one of the major things there is growing up playing a team game, whether it’s baseball or others. It just gives you some skills, some abilities, some experience that apply to life. I think baseball applies to life.

As far as athletics, it’s the greatest dropout prevention program we’ve ever had in high school. And that goes really for activities as well, like music. But if you can get students that aren't regularly incentivized or have the initiative, if you get them involved in athletics and now they have that carrot, they want to participate, and you’ve got a coach pressing them to make sure they perform academically … I think that has a huge impact on a student’s life. I’ve had that experience as a player myself, I had that experience as a coach, and still talk to players today that I coached 25 years ago.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter with the News Service of Florida. 

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