Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jeb Bush disciple Tony Bennett is named new Florida Education Commissioner

Posted By on Wed, Dec 12, 2012 at 2:42 PM

Tony Bennett
  • Tony Bennett
Today, the Florida State Board of Education selected former Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett as the state's new education commissioner. Bennett replaces Gerald Robinson, who stepped down in July. He became available for the job after voters in Indiana rejected his bid for re-election last month.

Yes, Indiana voters get the franchise to determine their education commissioner. Thirteen other states do as well.

Bennett comes from the conservative teach to the test philosophy that has nationally become ascendant over the past decade, but still faces strong resistance. But Florida Republicans are no doubt excited he was available. As the Tampa Bay Times Jeffrey S. Solochek reported:

Bennett's name emerged as a possibility the same November day he lost his reelection bid in Indiana. He's considered a "rock star" in education reform circles, an ally of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and the outcomes-based accountability measures that Bush promotes such as school grading and third-grade retention.

If you think that doesn't sound like the resume that the Florida Education Association — Florida's biggest teacher's union — would endorse, you'd be correct.

Upon learning of his selection, Florida Education Association head Andy Ford said his union was "disappointed and disheartened."

In a Florida Education Association press release, Ford went on to say:

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. 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. That's the same approach that has led to a flawed and chaotic system in Florida that has frustrated parents and teachers alike. In Indiana, teachers and education professionals felt he was blaming them for all of the state's education woes.

As the StateImpact Indiana reported, few states in the country have "embraced" Bush's blueprint on education like Bennett has.

In an interview with StateImpact Florida's John O'Connor, Bennett says almost all of Indiana's initiatives — A-F grading for schools, teacher evaluations, performance based pay, expansive voucher programs and expanded charter school options — mirror what Florida has been doing for several years now.

During his public interview this week with Florida officials, Bennett was asked about his work with teacher's unions.

Let me say this, I don't think there's any question that many people would say the Indiana teacher unions are part of the reason I wasn't elected because of much of the same blowback. So let's be very real about that and let's be very transparent about that. One could argue my record with them is probably not very good either. But again I want to go back to the idea of winning the hearts and minds of teachers. …

One of the things we did that was very successful — and I will admit it's something I wish we would have done more of in 2012 that we did a tremendous amount of in 2011 — is we sent every teacher in the state emails twice a week. We didn't go through their state union. We went directly to teachers and we talked directly to teachers. Some of those early emails weren't welcome. We got some pretty raw responses, frankly. But by the end, we were getting responses that said, 'While we may disagree with this, we appreciate your candor, we appreciate your honesty.'

Bennett's predecessor, Gerald Robinson, was on the job for just a year. Before that, Eric Smith held down the job since 2007.

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