Sunday, April 22, 2018
Education

Q&A: Tony Bennett, Florida's new education commissioner

Tony Bennett lost his re-election bid as Indiana superintendent of public instruction on Nov. 6. A month later, Bennett, 52, won appointment as Florida's next education commissioner. He begins Jan. 14. He spoke about his plans with the Tampa Bay Times from his Indiana home on Thursday. His comments were edited for clarity and space.

There's been talk that Florida and other states might have taken on too many reform initiatives at the same time. Do you see that as a problem?

The short answer is no. I think what we have to be mindful of is alignment. … I think the answer to your question isn't more or less. The most important thing we have to do is make sure when we pursue these reforms, that we are very careful and very intentional about aligning the reforms to each other so we don't create disconnects.

Are there ideas that you want to bring to Florida?

First of all, remember, be it criticized, be it noted, however you want to define it, I was the person who was described as bringing the Florida reforms to Indiana. So there hasn't been a whole lot other than a pure voucher system that we implemented in Indiana that wasn't previously implemented in Florida.

Does Florida need one of those voucher systems?

Well, I am a huge advocate of school choice without any question at all. I am unashamed to say that.

And so?

I think it speaks for itself.

What do you say to people who say you are taking money out of the public school system when you should be promoting improvements within the public school system?

I believe this. And this goes to a purely philosophical perspective, and I acknowledge that. And I acknowledge there are very smart people who may see this differently. I believe the state collects taxes to educate children, not to fund schools.

The teachers union president has said your appointment is great for the Jeb Bush agenda, but not for the children and the teachers of Florida, the schools of Florida. Can you get on the same page with somebody like that?

I actually look forward to working with them on that issue. You haven't heard me say one negative thing about Mr. (Andy) Ford or the teachers union since I've been appointed. And I'm not going to. The way I am going to respond to that is, I will give Mr. Ford the same invitation for input that I gave to the Indiana State Teacher Association president. I just hope he takes better advantage of the invitation.

How do you deal with the issues that the governor has brought up that maybe there's too much testing, and at the same time, if we are going to test, we should test everybody who is involved in the public system?

I am not sure in Florida yet … how much assessment is actually prescribed by the state. … In Indiana, our assessment requirements were 0.6 percent of the school year.

But then districts feel that because the tests are there, they do other tests to prepare.

Again, that goes back to local control. I am a person that believes that formative assessments inform instruction. That is the reason you do them.

What about the part about the voucher students and other people in the choice programs who aren't directly in the public schools?

In Indiana, if a private school takes one voucher student, every student in that school takes the state assessment so that school gets a letter grade based on the same calculation as everyone else.

Should Florida do that?

Our private schools volunteered to do that. … Part of the reason they chose to do that … is because the Indiana High School Athletic Association requires schools to be accredited in order to participate in this very important thing we do, which is play high school sports. And part of the accreditation is taking the state assessment. And the other reason the schools did it is, frankly, they felt they could illustrate they were doing a very good job. … I do believe we have a responsibility, be it at a public school or whatever, when we are spending taxpayer dollars … that we should be able to prove that schools perform for the money they are given.

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