Florida Education Commissioner Choice: Tony Bennett, Outgoing Indiana Schools Chief

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TONY BENNETT
Tony Bennett, Indiana's outgoing Republican superintendent for public instruction, will move to Florida to serve as the state's new education commissioner. Bennett is shown here in his Statehouse office in Indianapolis, Tuesday, July 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) | AP

Tony Bennett, Indiana's outgoing Republican superintendent for public instruction, will move to Florida to serve as the state's new education commissioner.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to hire Bennett to oversee the Florida's public schools and colleges. Bennett is expected to carry over his school reform agenda from Indiana that focused on the Common Core State Standards, a set of national benchmarks for reading and math.

"I think his ability to be up to speed quickly will be very important for the state of Florida," Florida board member John Padget told the Orlando Sentinel of Bennett.

Bennett's time in Indiana was defined by a number of initiatives that mirror Florida's school reform efforts, including grading schools on an A-F scale, expanding charter schools and voucher programs, evaluating teachers based on student performance and pushing for turnaround efforts in failing schools.

His appointment marks a win over two other finalists for the post: Murray State University President Randy Dunn, who was formerly Illinois superintendent, and Arlington, Va., consultant Charles Hokanson, who was once a deputy assistant U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush.

Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of the education lobbying group StudentsFirst, praised Bennett's appointment in a statement Wednesday, noting that accountability reforms implemented in states like Florida and Indiana have paid off, as evidenced by the release of international PIRLS and TIMSS exam scores this week.

"There are few leaders in the nation who have advocated for results-based education reforms as passionately and adeptly as Tony Bennett," Rhee said. "By putting Dr. Bennett in place as Commissioner, Florida has strongly positioned itself to build on the policies that achieved its success and ensure that every child in the state has the opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.”

In a surprising upset last month, Bennett lost his bid for re-election in Indiana to Democratic challenger Glenda Ritz, that state's teacher of the year. Bennett's loss shocked even his critics, as his tenure in Indiana had made him a nationally recognized face of education reform. But Bennett was somewhat prepared for the outcome.

"We know the work we had done over the last three years had created a culture that was ripe for a lot of blowback over the next election," Bennett told The Huffington Post last month. "We couldn't overcome the rhetoric of the teachers unions and the undercurrent that they generated ... It was a mandate to basically say that Tony Bennett isn't a good person who doesn't like public education."

His road to appointment in Florida wasn't without obstacles, either. Parent leaders representing advocacy organizations across the state wrote to Gov. Rick Scott urging him to reject all three finalists for the job, The Miami Herald reports. The candidates, they said, "apparently endorse an extreme reform agenda that does not represent our vision of public education."

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford criticized Bennett's appointment shortly after the board announced its decision Wednesday, saying that the state teachers union is "disappointed and disheartened" by the selection.

"Bennett proved to be divisive in his tenure in the same position in Indiana and was voted out of office last month in the conservative state," Ford said in a statement. "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."

Bennett is walking into a state whose education system was heavily shaped by former Gov. Jeb Bush's emphasis on accountability, higher standards and tying monetary rewards and consequences to school performance. He also inherits Florida's federal Race to the Top grant, which has proven problematic for the state. Florida officials failed to issue contracts, including data system implementation and interventions in failing schools, in a timely manner -- threatening to cost the state millions of dollars for improving schools.

Bennett succeeds Commissioner Gerard Robinson, who resigned in August after just one year. Robinson cited family reasons for his resignation, though his tenure was wrought with controversy over the state's test-based school accountability system and failing scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. In May, school officials had to pass an emergency rule that lowered the passing score for the state's writing exam after the majority of the state's fourth- and eighth-graders failed the FCAT.

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