Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Education

Interim education commissioner cautious as Tony Bennett's replacement

Florida's interim education commissioner says "stay tuned" for some key decisions on the future of student testing and the state's school grading system.

Six work days into her job, Pam Stewart said Monday she has been gathering information so she can make appropriate recommendations on these issues, which former Commissioner Tony Bennett had been working on before he abruptly resigned Aug. 1.

"I think they are urgent. But it's important to be very thoughtful and careful about that kind of decision. That is what I am trying to be," Stewart told the Tampa Bay Times in her first media interview since being named to the post. "I am trying to be responsive, but I am also trying to make sure that it's the right direction and we're doing the right thing and we aren't hasty. I'm taking my time and being careful, but being very mindful of the urgency."

She acknowledged that lawmakers had put some pressure on the department to create a "Florida plan" to test students on the Common Core State Standards, and to move away from the multistate consortium that Florida has led in the past. Even with that determination looming, Stewart said, students and teachers need to keep their focus on the new standards, which remain in place.

"The assessment is an important decision, but it should not be the driver," said Stewart, who was in Tampa on Monday speaking at a conference on financial literacy education. "The standards are the driver for what takes place in the classroom. So we want to keep teachers focused in that direction."

She also was mindful of concerns raised from several fronts, including members of the Florida Board of Education, that the state's school grading and accountability system needed an overhaul.

The debate gained a national audience as Bennett resigned over reported manipulations of Indiana's school grading system, which was based on Florida's.

But Stewart had no timetable for taking action.

She said she hoped to provide some stability in an organization that has seen turbulence at the top. She's the state's sixth education commissioner since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011. She held the interim position before Bennett's appointment, as well, and has been a high-level leader in the department for several years, taking a short break to serve as a deputy school superintendent in St. Johns County.

At the same time, she added, she hoped to provide some vision as the state looks ahead. Whether that translates into Stewart losing the "interim" part of her title remains to be seen.

"I think it's important that we have some stability. But I have not entered into discussions," she said. "I am at this point taking each and every day and working to make sure that we are doing the right thing for kids in Florida, and that will be my focus."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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