Tony Bennett resignation buoys Florida school-testing critics

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For the third time in Gov. Rick Scott’s two-and-a-half years as governor, there is no permanent leader in place for the Department of Education.

Departures are nothing new for the Scott administration. At least 11 department heads during Scott’s term have resigned; the governor is also on his third chief of staff and is still looking for a replacement for Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. 

But the state’s top education job has proven to be one of the most difficult to fill with a long-term hire. Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned Thursday after less than eight months on the job; he had replaced Gerard Robinson, who stepped down after little more than a year at DOE. 

Even some Republicans concede that the situation is less than ideal. 

“It’s a distraction, especially given how important education is to, really, the future of the state,” said Sen. Bill Galvano who chairs the Senate’s education funding panel. 

Critics of the state’s education policies are now seizing on the resignations, arguing that the problem is less the person on the job than the state’s accountability system. Bennett was a strong supporter of that system, adding a twist of irony to his resignation in the wake of reports that he tweaked the Indiana school report card formulas to help a school founded by a political contributor. Bennett was Indiana’s elected superintendent of public instruction before coming to Florida. 

Robinson resigned after the botched rollout of school grades in Florida last year, though he said he was leaving the post to spend more time with his family. Bennett was forced to extend some grading policies that Robinson put in place in an effort to avoid collapsing scores this year. 

“It is baffling that some in the Legislature keep moving the bar higher on our children, while the bar for gubernatorial appointees to ensure their success seems to get lower and lower,” Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said in a statement issued Thursday. “Not to mention the instability of the ‘swinging door effect’ that undermines forward movement on the critical role of government to educate our children.”

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford was among those saying that Bennett was done in by the “so-called reforms” that he backed.

“As long as it is a political appointment, the office of the education commissioner will be a revolving door, and our students, schools and communities will continue to experience the whiplash of these policies,” Ford said. “It’s past time that we include teachers, parents and administrators in developing solutions, not just listen to the ‘reformers’ who have an approach that has been a disaster for public education in Florida.” 

In many ways, it’s a battle that goes beyond Scott or the education commissioner, who is technically chosen by the State Board of Education but is often the governor’s favored pick. The fight over high-stakes testing and its role in Florida’s attempt to measure student performance has its roots in the education reform battles during former Gov. Jeb Bush’s term. 

“Actually, I think it says even more, perhaps, about Jeb Bush and his policies,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, when asked what the repeated resignations said about the DOE under Scott. 

Bush has remained an influential figure in the state’s education policies, largely through the work of his Foundation for Florida’s Future, which often takes a lead role in some of the toughest fights over schools in the Legislature. But Pafford said Bush’s sway is already weakening and would be hurt more by the departure of Bennett, who openly admires Bush. 

“This should be the end of what Jeb Bush did in Florida, which is really destroying a system and taking it into the Dark Ages,” Pafford said. 

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said the problems Florida has gone through during the last two years have less to do with accountability itself and more to do with “the mechanics of it.” 

“But at the same time, when we moved as quickly as we moved in Florida, you can expect some growing pains,” he said. 

Galvano dismissed the idea that there are any inherent problems at the DOE and said there was no need to overhaul the state’s approach to schools. 

“We’re going to move forward,” he said. 

For his part, Scott shows few signs of changing direction on education policy. A spokeswoman for the governor did not dispute Bennett’s claims that Scott encouraged him not to resign, and a statement issued by Scott also didn’t indicate misgivings. 

“Florida’s education system continues to make incredible gains, and our number one priority is to keep that momentum moving forward,” Scott said.