Florida education officials offer top job to school choice advocate Tony Bennett

12/12/12 Janelle Irwin
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The Florida Board of Education chose their new leader Wednesday at the Tampa Airport Marriott; Indiana Schools superintendent Tony Bennett is expected to start his new job sometime next month after contract negotiations with the board have finished. After the decision was made Bennett said he is looking forward to continuing Florida’s education reform track record and called himself an unabashed advocate for school choice.

“Florida has a rich history of serving students in a way that I don’t believe any other state has replicated until Indiana came along in the last four years. I have made the comment many times that if I wasn’t the state chief in Indiana, the place that I always thought that you could make the biggest difference for children – not only in the state, but in the national context – is in Florida because I think this state is so vitally important to the national education discussion.”

Voters in conservative Indiana rejected Bennett’s bid for re-election for the top spot in the state’s public school system even though he’s a Republican. Bennett’s loss to a pro-union Democrat comes after he pushed teacher evaluation and merit pay policies similar to what Florida has already enacted. Education board members, including St. Pete’s Akshay Desai, hired him based on his passion for those policies and his plan to bring some naysayers to his side.

“What stood out about Mr. Bennett is his desire not only to continue to emphasize performance and accountability, but his willingness to go out all over the state, listen to all the stakeholders, listen to all the teachers, meeting with them in the classroom, meeting with the principles and others so that way the message of performance and accountability and achieving results – simultaneously reaching it out to everybody, all the stakeholders and bring them on board.”

Florida’s new teacher evaluation system has fallen under harsh criticism after many results were proven to be inaccurate. Some teachers were evaluated based on test scores of students who they had never taught. That’s something Bennett said needs to be taken care of.

“The gnashing of teeth that we hear about this, in my opinion, from very well intentioned, passionate teachers isn’t that they don’t want to be evaluated. They want to know that the system is fair.”

During his interview last night, Bennett claimed he would speak directly with teachers and principles to earn back some faith. After the board unanimously approved his job offer, Bennett stood by his commitment to make the evaluation system more palatable to teachers.

“First and foremost, the department must become credible and make sure that what we do is accurate and is done in the most transparent and fair manner and I think that builds credibility in the field.”

Bennett is also a huge proponent of voucher programs and charter schools. Both have been criticized by opponents for funneling public dollars into private hands. But the incoming education commissioner called school choice programs social justice.

“If I had school-aged children and this happened to me today, what would I do? I would get my family down to Tallahassee and we would drive around Tallahassee and decide where the best schools are. Am I right? Guess what, I have school choice because I can afford it. And in Indiana, I believe every parent in the state of Indiana should have the choice I had because I can afford it.”

Parents in both Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties already have those options through magnet schools and career academies. Bennett said throwing vouchers and charter schools run by management companies into the mix adds competition that encourages schools to stay on top of their game.

“But many public school administrators would tell you today that that competition did make them better and they’re now thinking very keenly about how they’re serving children.”

Another reason Florida Department of Education board members sited for choosing Bennett was his experience with the testing program set to replace the unpopular FCAT in 2014. The Common Core assessment was developed by the Partnership of Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Bennett is on the group’s steering committee. Bennett said his affiliation with the partnership won’t create a conflict when implementing the new testing system, but he is planning to aggressively move forward with the change.

“It is very important that Florida continues to drive the procurement of these and keep this project on schedule through procurement. It’s very important for Florida and states like Florida to continue to set the bar high for everyone else.”

The other two candidates interviewed were Charles Hokanson and Randy Dunn. Hokanson is the former deputy assistant U.S. secretary of education under the George W. Bush administration and used to be the head of a school choice non-profit think tank. Dunn is currently the president of Murray State University in Kentucky. Even though Dunn has previous experience as both a K-12 educator and professor, board of education member Kathleen Shanahan said Bennett’s work history set him apart.

“I think Tony’s experience in being a teacher, a superintendent, a coach and a statewide elected leader brought a lot more real time, real recent experience in terms of where we need to get to – and his leadership in Common Core – so I support that.”

During his interview Tuesday night, Bennett listed other priorities for Florida public schools including removing textbook requirements for school districts and introducing legislation that could deal with parents who don’t send their kids to school.

Bennett and the other two finalists were chosen from a pool of more than 150 candidates.

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