Indiana's recently ousted state school superintendent was named to a new job Wednesday as Florida's education commissioner, a choice that drew applause from Gov. Rick Scott and criticism from the leader of Florida's statewide teachers union.
The State Board of Education unanimously selected Tony Bennett, a Republican who lost a bid for re-election in Indiana last month, from a slate of three finalists at its regular meeting in Tampa.
"Tony's experience in being a teacher, a superintendent, a coach and a statewide elected leader brought a lot more real time, real recent experience in terms of where we need to get to," board member Kathleen Shanahan said.
She also cited Bennett's leadership in the implementation of Common Core State Standards and a related battery of tests. Florida is among 45 states, the District of Columbia and three territories that have agreed to adopt the national standards.
In a statement, Scott said, "Tony has a great record of achievement in Indiana and I am confident he will be a tireless advocate for Florida's students."
Scott added that he would hold Bennett responsible for driving the Republican governor's agenda that emphasizes preparing students for college and careers.
The commissioner is hired by the board, whose members are appointees of Scott and prior GOP governors. After Scott was elected governor in 2010, he pressured Eric Smith, who had strong support in the Republican-controlled Legislature, to resign as commissioner. Scott was a proponent of Smith's successor, Gerard Robinson, who resigned in August after about a year on the job.
In Indiana, Bennett led efforts to adopt accountability changes, including letter grades for schools, pioneered by Florida and former Gov. Jeb Bush, who has close ties to several board members.
Many of the GOP initiatives in the state have drawn opposition from the Florida Education Association. The union's president, Andy Ford, said the FEA "is disappointed and disheartened" by Bennett's selection.
"Bennett proved to be divisive in his tenure in the same position in Indiana and was voted out of office," Ford said. "He is a champion of the testing mania, unchecked expansion of charter schools and voucher programs. ... That's the same approach that has led to a flawed and chaotic system in Florida."
Bennett was asked about his relations with the unions when the board interviewed the three finalists Tuesday.
"Many people would say that the Indiana teachers unions are probably part of the reason I wasn't elected because of much of the same blowback," Bennett said then.
Bennett also pledged Tuesday to seek the views of parents, school administrators, community members, teachers and the unions, too.
"You have to invite them to the table," he said. "If they're not willing to do that, we have to talk directly to teachers."
Bennett told the board that he bypassed the Indiana unions by directly emailing his views to all teachers.
Asked about the growing opposition to high-stakes testing in Florida, Bennett said he "wholeheartedly believes in assessment" as a key part of instruction.
Bennett also stressed that he sees his role as one of implementing policy set by the board, governor and Legislature.
Board Chairman Gary Chartrand said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels gave Bennett a strong endorsement when they spoke at a conference.
"His comment was `I'd walk on coals for that guy,"' Chartrand recalled. "I didn't have any follow up questions after that."
After the vote, Bennett was ushered into the meeting room to applause from the board.
"We have a great opportunity to capture Florida's moment, to continue to get the results you've gotten and then to continue to propel Florida to be the example for the rest of the country," Bennett told the panel.
The other finalists for the commissioner post were Murray State University President Randy Dunn, who once served as state school superintendent in Illinois, and Arlington, Va., education consultant Charles Hokanson, a former deputy assistant U.S. secretary of education in President George W. Bush's administration.
Robinson cited separation from his family as his reason for resigning. He previously had been Virginia's secretary of education, but his wife, a law professor, and children remained in Richmond because she was unable to find a comparable job in Tallahassee.
Board member John Padget said Bennett's wife assured him they are eager to make the move to Florida.
Bennett, meanwhile, had high praise for Public Schools Chancellor Pam Stewart, who has served as interim commissioner since Robinson's departure.
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