Tony Bennett made the right decision by resigning Thursday as Florida's education commissioner. His credibility was irreparably damaged by the revelation this week that as head of Indiana's public schools he intentionally improved the letter grade of an Indianapolis charter school founded by a major Republican donor. The controversy likely will to continue to unfold, and the Florida education commissioner should be focused on Florida rather than on defending his reputation in his home state.
The result of Bennett's abrupt departure is more turmoil for Florida's education system. The Department of Education again lacks a permanent leader, and several top department jobs were filled with Bennett's allies from Indiana. The state testing system is discredited and lacks support among school superintendents, teachers and parents. Republican legislative leaders want Florida to pull out of a national consortium developing assessments for the coming Common Core State Standards, and other conservatives want the state to drop plans to follow those national standards. Bennett predicted Florida will stick with Common Core — and it should, but the pressure on Republicans from their conservative base is growing.
Ultimately, Gov. Rick Scott is responsible for the lack of trust in the direction of public education in Florida. He campaigned as though teachers and public schools were the enemy, and he signed state budgets into law that slashed spending on public education. Then he pushed to restore more than $1 billion in spending and give teacher raises this year as his job approval ratings continued to plummet. The state of public education in Florida will be a major issue in next year's governor's race, and former Gov. Jeb Bush still has more influence over the Legislature and the Board of Education than Scott on that subject.
Scott has had extraordinarily high turnover among agency heads during his first term, and no seat has been hotter than education commissioner. The governor could not have foreseen the scandal over Bennett's manipulation of school grades in Indiana. But selecting a national political figure who just lost an election in his home state was sure to lead to political controversy at some point. Bennett continued to vigorously defend himself at a news conference Thursday, complaining about "malicious, unfounded reports" from Indiana and sounding very much like an embattled politician. Florida's appointed education commissioner should be focused on policy, not politics.
The Board of Education will meet today to appoint another interim commissioner. With roughly 15 months until the 2014 general election, it's unlikely a national search for a new education commissioner will produce stellar candidates. The state has cycled through three permanent commissioners and two interims since Scott took office in January 2011, so an appointment from inside Florida government might be best to stabilize the situation for now and preserve the commitment to Common Core State Standards. If Scott and the Board of Education persuade someone to take the job and move to Tallahassee, here's some free advice:
Rent, don't buy.