Education

Florida education board names interim commissioner

 
 
Chancellor Pam Stewart will once again serve as interim education commissioner after Toney Bennett's resignation.
Chancellor Pam Stewart will once again serve as interim education commissioner after Toney Bennett's resignation.
Florida Department of Education

Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

The state Board of Education tapped Pam Stewart to be interim education commissioner Friday, amid calls from Democratic lawmakers and union leaders for the job to become an elected position.

Stewart’s appointment follows the resignation of Tony Bennett, who had become entangled in a grade-fixing flap in his home state of Indiana. Bennett stepped down Thursday to avoid becoming a “distraction” to Gov. Rick Scott, he said.

In an emergency conference call Friday, members of the state education board lamented Bennett’s abrupt departure and named Stewart his temporary successor in a unanimous vote. Chairman Gary Chartrand said the board would consider “next steps” at its Sept. 17 meeting.

But board member Kathleen Shanahan said immediate action was necessary, and called for the creation of a committee to examine the integrity of Florida’s education accountability system.

“While I think Pam is a great interim option for us, we as state board members are responsible for the execution of the accountability system in the state of Florida and it’s a mess,” Shanahan said.

Shanahan said the board also needed to consider a request from Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford to withdraw from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a national consortium crafting assessments for the new Common Core State Standards.

“We have been a leading indicator in this country about accountability returns and performance,” she said. “We are at a tipping point of watching that all dissipate.”

Vice Chairman John Padget urged his colleagues not to let Bennett’s resignation “throw [them] off course.”

A longtime educator and current K-12 chancellor, Stewart has been Florida’s interim education once before. She held the position for four months after former Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson resigned last August, but did not apply to be his permanent replacement.

Stewart declined requests for interviews Friday.

Meanwhile, two Democratic lawmakers and Florida Education Association President Andy Ford stepped up calls for the state education commissioner to be an elected position.

Florida used to have an elected education commissioner. But that changed in 2003, on account of a constitutional amendment that reduced the number of elected cabinet members and created the state Board of Education.

The last elected education commissioner was former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Under the current system, the governor appoints seven members to sit on the state Board of Education. The board selects an education commissioner to oversee day-to-day operations at the state education department.

But the recent revolving door of education commissioners has caused some observers to question the model.

On Friday, state Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, said Floridians had grown tired of “political appointees and politically driven commissioners who really don’t understand the meat and potatoes of Florida education.”

“What we are in essence dealing with is a lack of trust among Floridians of those who are putting these people in place,” Bullard said.

Said Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, also a Miami Democrat: “For us, it really comes down to accountability at the highest levels of education. If you are going to have elected statewide cabinet officers as we do, why not a statewide education commissioner?”

Changing the structure of the education board would require a constitutional amendment.

Republican state Sens. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Greg Evers, R-Baker, suggested the idea last year, but their proposal got little traction in the Legislature. An identical bill by Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, also died in committee.

Herald/Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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