Corcoran pushes changes in state college system

Florida education czar Richard Corcoran bristles at being called a disrupter.

He prefers the gentler label of "transformer," a brand Corcoran burnished during his two-year tenure as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

As speaker, the Republican father of six pushed through a series of what were touted as “transformational” education policies that included major expansions of charter schools and private-school vouchers.

And now, as Florida’s education commissioner, Corcoran is aiming to make changes in the state college system.

Less than a year on the job, Corcoran has convinced the State Board of Education to sign off on a new funding formula for the 28-college system, which, with more than 320,000 students, is widely viewed as one of the finest in the nation.

Corcoran, whose post-secondary education got off to a rocky start, attended two of what were known at the time as “community colleges” before graduating from Saint Leo University in 1989 and receiving a law degree in 1996 from Regent University.

Corcoran credits the state college system --- which includes only two schools that still use the “community” college moniker --- for his educational turnaround.

“I personally know, first-hand, how great our state college system is because without it I would not have finished my college degree. In addition to that, there’s just one anecdote after the next of how colleges transformed people’s lives like mine,” he told The News Service of Florida in a recent interview. “What I want to do and what the (college) presidents want to do is, hey, let’s get together and come up with bold proposals that literally recognize the value that our colleges are giving to not only our economy but to our students and to our communities. And let’s try to put the colleges at an elevated level and put them on a path to success for the coming decades. That’s where this all came from.”

The new funding model would create “bands” to group colleges by size and, in part, would base funding on growth. The model also would address increases in the “cost of doing business,” according to the Department of Education’s legislative budget requested approved by the state Board of Education on Aug. 21.

Colleges with growing enrollment would get a funding boost. And the model also would create a process to support workforce programs that are more expensive.

The budget proposal, for the fiscal year that will begin July 1, seeks a $24 million increase in state funds in addition to the roughly $1.2 billion the colleges received for the current year.

At the Aug. 21 meeting, Tallahassee Community College President Jim Murdaugh told the state board he wanted to give a “shout-out” to Corcoran for working with the colleges on the funding issue.

“And I’m proud to tell you that, for the first time, our budget request mirrors what the commissioner is suggesting, and I think that is absolutely remarkable,” said Murdaugh, chairman of the college system’s Council of Presidents.

The presidents, however, did not unanimously support the new funding formula, Murdaugh told the News Service.

“That’s not the way we work,” he said, adding that the legislative budget request was authorized by “leadership of the council.”

Murdaugh said the budget proposal “is a product of lots of conversations that I had with him (Corcoran), that others have had with him, and he modified it, tweaked it, adjusted it, improved it.”

“This is not an idea that is novel or unique to Richard Corcoran,” he said. “The idea of using bands to organize colleges for purposes of funding has been proposed several years ago. He resurrected it and feels that it would be a more effective way to convince the Legislature to fund colleges.”

Murdaugh said some legislators think the current funding formula is “too complicated, and sometimes perception is reality.” But he acknowledged the new tier-based formula, which requires legislative approval, “remains a work in progress.”

St. Johns River State College President Joe Pickens, a former legislator, told the News Service the colleges have created a workgroup to “see if we can come up with a formula or distribution model that is consistent with what the commissioner has proposed and what the presidents are comfortable with.”

“(Corcoran’s) presenting bold ideas but then he’s asking us, what do you think about them. I appreciate the idea that the commissioner has his own thoughts and is putting them out there but is asking us to weigh in on them,” Pickens said.

Part of Corcoran’s plans for the state college system are aimed at carrying out an executive order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis not long after he took office in January. DeSantis has targeted the college system as an integral component of his plan to make Florida the best in the nation for workforce education by the year 2030.

An expansion of dual enrollment, which allows high school students to take college courses and receive college credits for free, fits in with DeSantis’ workforce goals and is being pushed by the education commissioner.

School districts typically pick up much of the tab for dual enrollment classes, which have blossomed in popularity. About 265,000 public-school students took dual enrollment classes in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the education department’s budget request. The courses also drew nearly 16,000 private-school students and more than 9,500 home-school students.

The education department is asking for a $10 million boost to “student success incentive funds” --- a 33 percent increase from the current $30 million --- for a program designed to support colleges’ efforts to graduate students with associate degrees and have them transfer to baccalaureate degree programs.

Corcoran is also pushing $16 million in new funding for dual enrollment “scholarships” for high school students who attend private schools or home school and for summer dual-enrollment classes for all students.

“The statistics are overwhelming that the population that benefits the most being exposed to dual enrollment as early as possible are low-income kids,” Corcoran said.

The commissioner also extolled the virtues of dual enrollment as “the least expensive way” for students to move toward a college degree “and not be saddled with a lot of student debt.”

Corcoran and state lawmakers have also toyed with lowering high-school students’ eligibility requirements to participate in dual enrollment. Currently, students must have a grade-point average of 3.0 to be eligible. Corcoran earlier this year floated the idea of lowering the eligibility to 2.5.

Like Corcoran, Pickens and other presidents are enthusiastic about dual enrollment, but Pickens stressed that leaders need to be cautious when considering new eligibility requirements, saying it is critical that students be successful in the program.

“Here’s the mission critical situation about establishing what the thresholds are going to be, because exposing students to dual enrollment who are not prepared or are ill-prepared, who are not going to be successful … could have a negative impact,” he said.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.