Florida Education Association slams choice of Tony Bennett as new education commissioner

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The State Board of Education chose a rising star in the school-choice movement to be Florida’s next education commissioner Wednesday, sparking a blistering condemnation from the state’s main teachers union, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Tony Bennett, the superintendent of public instruction in Indiana, was unanimously tapped by the board at its December meeting. The position has been filled by interim Commissioner Pam Stewart since Gerard Robinson resigned last summer amid controversies surrounding Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores and the botched rollout of school grades.

Bennett had been mentioned for the job in 2011, when Robinson got it, but didn’t apply. The Indiana supervisor of public instruction is an elected position, and Bennett was defeated in his bid for re-election last month.

“I think we have a great opportunity to capture Florida’s moment,” Bennett told the board in brief remarks after he was selected.

In the resume he submitted to the board, Bennett boasted of spearheading “the most comprehensive education reform effort in 25 years” while in Indiana. The initiative introduced a voucher program and limited collective bargaining to pay and benefits.

Bennett also highlighted an increase of more than four percentage points in Indiana’s graduation rate and his decision to change the state’s school grading scale to a system using letter grades.
Board members pointed to Bennett’s experience and work on some of the same reform efforts that Florida is pushing, including a nationwide guideline for curriculum known as the common core standards, as an asset. Gov. Rick Scott also praised Bennett in a statement issued by his office.

“Tony has a great record of achievement in Indiana and I am confident he will be a tireless advocate for Florida’s students,” Scott said.

But the Florida Education Association blasted Bennett, saying he had an antagonistic relationship with teachers in Indiana.

“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,” FEA President Andy Ford said in a statement. “That’s the same approach that has led to a flawed and chaotic system in Florida that has frustrated parents and teachers alike.”

Democrats, many of whom have opposed elements of Florida’s education agenda in recent years, largely held their fire.

“I hope the choice the board made is the right one for Florida,” said House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation. “Florida deserves an education commissioner who puts public schools and public school students first.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.