Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Education

Former Indiana superintendent is Florida's new education commissioner

TAMPA — A man who brought Florida-style education initiatives to Indiana will take over as Florida's education chief.

Tony Bennett, who lost his bid for a second term as Indiana superintendent of public instruction, on Wednesday won a unanimous appointment as Florida's next education commissioner.

"I want to create a culture where every member of the community sees teachers as creators of knowledge," he said.

Addressing a statewide panel of superintendents and teachers at Tampa's Roland Park K-8 Magnet School, he described himself as a small-government administrator who believes in setting parameters and then letting districts run their own schools.

"Our job is to get you to yes," he said, promising to visit the districts frequently. "If the department (of education) is getting in your way, we want to know."

The chairman of Jeb Bush's Chiefs for Change organization, Bennett, 52, said just about the only job he could enjoy more than the Indiana post would be in Florida. "This state is so vitally important to the national education conversation," he said.

The job he faces is a big one, with Florida changing its testing model and moving to a more challenging curriculum standard, Common Core. The state is also making a transition to digital learning and progressing with new teacher evaluations.

Gov. Rick Scott, who appeared with Bennett at Roland Park, said his top priorities will be tying education to job creation and improving the teacher evaluation system.

"Nothing is off the table," Bennett said when discussing the evaluations, which have sparked controversy. "No one minds being measured if they believe the measurement to be fair.

"There's nothing more important than great teachers and there's nothing more noble than great teachers and we've got to be sure we've got that right."

Bennett's familiarity managing such issues in Indiana proved attractive to State Board of Education members — two of whom are former Bush chiefs of staff.

"His ability to be up to speed quickly would be very important for the state of Florida," board member John Padget said.

• • •

While Bennett won praise from leaders who support initiatives such as school grading, vouchers and charter schools, he received a distinctly different reaction from others.

Melissa Erickson, past president of the Hillsborough County PTA council, said she could not back the appointment of Bennett, whom she saw as dismissive of parent interests.

"He was completely unresponsive to the requests and desires of parents to be more involved in Indiana," said Erickson, who runs the Alliance for Public Schools. "I don't expect he is going to drastically change the way he does business coming here."

She suggested the selection contrasts with Scott's commitment to recent promises, such as reduced testing. "This pick does not support the things he's saying he thinks Florida children deserve," she said.

Florida Education Association president Andy Ford deplored Bennett's appointment.

"He is a champion of the testing mania, unchecked expansion of charter schools and voucher programs and has proven to advance the Jeb Bush education agenda that has drawn fire from teachers, parents and experts in the field," Ford wrote in a statement.

"That's the same approach that has led to a flawed and chaotic system in Florida that has frustrated parents and teachers alike."

The split opinion mirrors views of Bennett in Indiana, said Terry Spradlin, director of education policy at the Indiana University Center for Evaluation & Education Policy.

Republican leaders and business organizations loved Bennett, Spradlin said. "Had he been an appointed state superintendent, he would still be our state superintendent."

But he incurred the wrath of teachers and parents with changes in teacher evaluations and pay, school grading, testing and curriculum, Spradlin said. He noted that from Bennett's first day, when he laid off almost half his state staff with two hours notice, Bennett showed an aggressive approach.

"Most people would say he's a really nice guy, likable and very passionate about his agenda," Spradlin said. "But perhaps it was the manner in which he tried to roll out so many things so quickly . . . that he did anger a lot of people along the way."

• • •

Talking with reporters Wednesday, Bennett did not step back from his strong support of teacher evaluations, private school vouchers, student testing and other measures. He did, however, acknowledge his failure in Indiana to get teachers and others on board.

"At times, we have not done a good job of reaching out and really discussing with educators how this is good for them," he said. "As a consequence, we have been depicted as angry reformers."

Bennett won the job over former Illinois state superintendent Randy Dunn and Charles Hokanson Jr., an education official in the George W. Bush administration. All three men submitted applications on the last day of a search that the board extended to seek better applicants.

Board member Kathleen Shanahan said Bennett stood out because of the breadth of his experiences as a teacher, school administrator, district leader and state education chief.

After the rocky, yearlong tenure of former Florida education chief Gerard Robinson, who arrived with limited experience in schools or managing a large agency, Bennett's resume fit the board's bill.

He plans to officially begin in mid-January. But he told the superintendents and teachers they could contact him immediately. "My email ([email protected]) is public record," he said.

He has not settled on contract terms yet. The post was advertised with a salary of up to $275,000, the amount Robinson was paid. Bennett earned $79,400 in Indiana.

Pam Stewart, who served as interim commissioner, will return to her post as K-12 chancellor. She did not apply for the commissioner job.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow him on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

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