Florida officials say they plan to conduct a nationwide search to replace Gerard Robinson, who resigned abruptly this week as state commissioner of education. Will the search bring them first to Indiana?
This is pure speculation, but why not? Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett has become something of a rock star in what’s known as the education reform world. He’s as obvious a choice to lead Florida’s education system as anyone.
Bennett is considered to be tight with former Gov. Jeb Bush, still a big name in Florida politics. He is a charter member and current chair of Chiefs for Change, an organization of chief school officials affiliated with Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.
He won Indiana the title of “reformiest” state in the nation in a competition sponsored the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which is highly regarded in conservative education policy circles. And in May, the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice gave Bennett their John T. Walton Champion of School Choice award.
As NPR StateImpact Florida made clear, Bennett looked to Florida as a model for the education policies that Indiana has adopted, and he and Gov. Mitch Daniels turned to Jeb Bush for help in getting Indiana Republicans to support the ideas. Florida-inspired policies that Indiana has adopted under Bennett include A-to-F school grades, more charter schools, private-school vouchers and high-stakes teacher evaluations.
If the national recognition and political ties aren’t enough, look at how Bennett’s political fund-raising success reflects his stature. Forty percent of his re-election campaign cash has come from out of state, StateImpact Indiana reported this week. That includes $200,000 from Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, $40,000 from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and $45,000 from Hoosiers for Economic Growth, which is largely funded by a pro-voucher organization bankrolled by New York and Philadelphia hedge-fund managers and the CEO of Overstock.com.
Bennett was mentioned a year ago when former Florida education commissioner Eric Smith resigned. Another Chief for Change, Virginia’s Robinson, got the job. And what is Florida looking for now? “I hope we can attract another national reform-minded education leader,” said Kathleen Shanahan, head of the Florida Board of Education, which hires the commissioner.
One possible issue is that Bennett comes across as a real Hoosier, a former coach with a down-home southern Indiana manner. But remember, he’s been rubbing shoulders with the likes Bush, Bloomberg and the policy wonks at the Fordham Foundation, and they’ve got his back. When it looked like Indiana legislators, including Republicans, were going to second-guess some of Bennett’s policies, Bush confidante Patricia Levesque put out the word that GOP members should back off.
Bennett also is in the midst of a re-election campaign. But he has such a big fund-raising advantage over Democrat Glenda Ritz that Republicans won’t have any trouble finding someone to step in.
Plus, what’s really left for him to accomplish in Indiana?
And here’s the kicker: Robinson was paid $275,000 in his first year as Florida education commissioner, according to the Tampa Bay Times – more than three times what Bennett is paid for the same job here.
If Florida were to come calling, you’d have to think Bennett would listen to the pitch.