It should come as no surprise that Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett is moving to Florida to take over as that state’s commissioner of education. Hey, I called this one in August. And back then I couldn’t have predicted Bennett would lose the election and be out of a job come January.
Bennett has looked to Florida for inspiration and ideas throughout his tenure as Indiana superintendent. A-to-F grades for schools, dramatic expansion of charter schools, retention for third-graders who don’t pass a reading test – all those Indiana policies were pioneered in the Sunshine State.
So were school vouchers, before the state’s Supreme Court held them to be unconstitutional.
And Bennett has long been a favorite of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He chairs Bush’s Chiefs for Change organization. Two members of the Florida State Board of Education are former Bush chiefs of staff. (The state board appoints the state education commissioner; the board’s members are appointed by the governor). So it makes perfect sense that he would be drawn to Florida, and vice versa.
Personally I wish Bennett well. One hopes he learned from the election that, if you want to build a consensus for reform, you shouldn’t start by bashing teachers and going out of your way to undermine support for public schools.
But it will be interesting to see how he fares politically in a state that’s bigger and more diverse than Indiana. As the Indiana schools chief, Bennett was the front man, but he was implementing an agenda that was strongly supported by Gov. Mitch Daniels. After the 2010 elections, Republicans dominated the House and Senate and were willing to do whatever Daniels and Bennett wanted.
Florida is under Republican control, too. But Gov. Rick Scott has been quoted as saying the state’s emphasis on test-based accountability may have gone too far, an idea that would be anathema to Bennett and his national supporters. Scott’s statement welcoming Bennett’s appointment focused not on Bennett but on his own education agenda, which centers on college and career readiness.
And Floridians who are skeptical about Bennett are ready. They know his record, and they are keenly aware that red-state Indiana voters turned him out in favor of Democrat Glenda Ritz. And the timing of this Washington Post story, alleging that Bennett and the Indiana Department of Education failed to use millions of available federal dollars to help students from migrant families, couldn’t have been much worse, could it?
Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, said the teachers’ union was “disappointed and disheartened” at Bennett’s selection.
“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,” Ford said. “That’s the same approach that has led to a flawed and chaotic system in Florida that has frustrated parents and teachers alike.”
Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the advocacy group Fund Education Now, asked: “What did Florida’s children, taxpayers and voters do to deserve Tony Bennett?” Citing the Indiana election, she said, “The people of Indiana spoke loud and clear. Why on earth would the Florida Board of Education select a man who was fired for putting education reform ideology ahead of what’s best for children?”
The pithiest response came from Teacher 111, who posted this comment on Diane Ravitch’s blog: