Transforming education to a system that is focused on students, not adults, hardly seems a radical notion. But it is not a job for the faint of heart. There are many entrenched interests with a great deal of money invested in the status quo. Making progress in this environment is a constant battle.
Adults are well equipped for it. Children and families are not.
Students don’t have lobbyists. They don’t have unions. Parents want their children to earn diplomas and to attend college without going through a gauntlet of remediation courses. Low-income parents who dream of sending their children to better schools can’t afford campaign contributions. They want change but confronting bureaucracies and policies is difficult and daunting.
These people deserve a voice. During his career in Indiana and then Florida, Tony Bennett gave them one. He not only became their voice, he became their champion. In Indiana he was known as Dr. Bennett, Coach Bennett, Principal Bennett and Superintendent Bennett. In Florida he was Commissioner Tony Bennett.
He was also just plain old Tony.
Tony believes all children can be successful. His passion for making sure schools in Indiana and then Florida provided every child that opportunity is unparalleled.
In Indiana, with Gov. Mitch Daniels, he changed policies and reformed practices, ushering in a new era of parental choice and focus on student achievement. He held schools accountable, began modernizing the teaching profession and led the charge for higher academic standards. Results quickly followed. Indiana’s graduation rate increased every year he served as superintendent of public instruction. The number of students dropping out of school was cut in half. The number of students passing the state’s mathematics test increased 9 percent, with 81 percent of students passing last year.
One of the cornerstone reforms Tony championed was a focus on early literacy. This year, Indiana’s third-grade students again made strong gains. Eighty-six percent of third graders are reading on grade level. At 30 public schools last year, every single child read at grade level. The year before, it was 21 schools.
A man accused of trying to undermine public education, in fact, had dramatically improved it. He took on both the political left and the political right, and that cost him his job. Nobody who objectively assesses the job Tony has done in Florida can conclude he should be leaving it.
As Florida’s education commissioner, he carried on that commitment to children and excellence. Overseeing education in such a large, diverse state is a much bigger challenge than in Indiana but Tony tackled it with his trademark passion and energy. He has traveled the state extensively meeting with parents, teachers, school administrators and superintendents. He has handled the concerns of lawmakers, school leaders and teachers. For those parents who fear their children are not mastering the skills necessary for success after high school, he has ably guided Florida in its transition to much higher academic standards.
Florida’s students will feel the loss of his leadership the most. Those who stooped to nasty political tactics to undermine Tony should be ashamed. They protect their self-interest at the expense of our next generation.
A quality education can change a life. It is the only real solution we have to counter the devastating effects of poverty. The sad reality is that if you are born in poverty today, you are more likely to stay there than at any time since World War II. Tony started every day determined to change that. He inspired others to do the same.
How ironic that the false accusations coming out of Indiana centered around a school that has been successful in improving the academic achievement of poor children, the very children who had been ignored for decades under the adult-centered model of education.
Tony will be sorely missed in Florida at a time when we need his leadership the most. We hope that for the sake of those kids who need a voice, we haven’t heard the last of him.
Jeb Bush was governor of Florida from 1999-2007 and is chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the Foundation for Florida’s Future.