“In my experiences with Commissioner Bennett, he has been open, cooperative, skillful and honest,” Gaetz wrote in a statement. “The commissioner tells me that he has an explanation in response to the criticisms leveled against him. We ought not to judge him until he has a chance to provide it.”
Stability is key for Scott, who has had three education commissioners and two interim education commissioners during his three years in office.
Bennett began in January, after losing reelection to his post in Indiana. Unlike Indiana, Florida appoints its top education official.
Bennett’s application came as a huge relief to Florida’s education reform crowd. The state education board had received few credible applications for its top job, which became vacant in August.
Gerard Robinson, who had come to the state just a year earlier from his post as Virginia secretary of education, resigned abruptly after having several high-profile problems with school grades and standardized testing. Robinson said he was leaving for family reasons, but insiders speculated that Scott wanted him out.
The commissioner before Robinson, Eric Smith, came in under former Gov. Charlie Crist. A nationally recognized education leader, Smith left Florida after being excluded from Scott’s transition team.
Bennett has already had challenges in his short tenure. Earlier this summer, he urged the board of education to preserve a “safety net” to protect schools from dropping more than one letter grade in light of changes to the grading formula. The board approved his recommendation, but members on both sides of the debate conceded that school grades had become less meaningful. One member suggested abandoning the grades entirely. State Board of Education member John Colon said Bennett’s woes in Indiana, while unfortunate if true, would not influence his views of the commissioner’s role in Florida.
“I’m judging Commissioner Bennett on what he’s doing, not what I’m hearing,” said Colon, a Sarasota financial adviser who joined the board after Bennett was appointed. “I have complete confidence in Commissioner Bennett.”
Board member Kathleen Shanahan said she, too, would continue to support Bennett.
But Rick Hess, an education policy scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said Bennett might not get full-throated support from the Republican Party leaders who once considered him a top education reformer.
The reason? Bennett has championed the Common Core State Standards, a new national curriculum that will be deployed in Florida schools over the next two years. Tea Party groups vehemently oppose the concept.
The philosophical rift, Hess said, “has created distrust among the Republican base and the legislative leadership in Florida.”
“It’s not at all clear that they’re going to want to stand behind Bennett,” he said. “More likely, they’re going to look for an opportunity to push out Bennett in favor of a state chief who is not such a supporter of the Common Core.”
Herald/Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.