With the architects of Florida’s education system on the defensive, the fiery leader of the country’s second-largest teachers union launched another round of attacks on former governor Jeb Bush and the state’s recently resigned education chief during a Monday visit to South Florida.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called Florida “ground zero for every single market-based experiment that has been done to our children” during a speech before hundreds of teachers at a back-to-school event at Sun Life Stadium. She compared former State Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett, who resigned this month amid a school grade-fixing scandal, to the late, disgraced Miami-Dade union boss Pat Tornillo.
“I love when somebody says, like Jeb Bush, ‘[Bennett] had to resign because of hits he was taking from the right and the left.’” Weingarten said. “No. He had to resign because he was cooking the books. Just like Tornillo had to leave.”
Tornillo’s scandal — using union funds to pay for a lavish lifestyle — put him in prison about a decade ago and was far worse than the allegations that led to Bennett’s fall. But emails showing that Bennett in his time as Indiana’s state superintendent changed a “C” to an “A” for a struggling charter school run by a Republican party donor have nevertheless been damaging to the education reform movement he represented.
Bennett, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, has denied wrongdoing. He says he was trying to correct a flaw in the Indiana grading model and resigned to avoid becoming a distraction.
But the emails, unearthed by the Associated Press, sparked national controversy and prompted an investigation into the grading system in Indiana at a time when Florida’s own A through F rankings have been heavily questioned. Some believe the flap also damaged Bush, who built a national education reform platform off his successes as governor in Florida and remains one of Bennett’s most-ardent supporters.
Weingarten’s union has pounced, and on Monday announced the filing of a request with the state for all communications between Bennett and other former Florida education chiefs, and Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and the American Legislative Exchange Council. The union’s request, similar to one they made in Indiana last week, included communications with for-profit companies that fund the organizations, and specifically mentions a charter school company that the union says employs Bennett’s wife.
“We want to follow the paper trail to see if there are other things, not just about Tony Bennett, but about Jeb Bush and all these folks who often get up and mask their push for austerity, or privatization, or profits or their demeaning of teachers and others, and we want to see what’s behind that,” Weingarten said in a sit-down with reporters. “We have a theory.”
Bush spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof responded Monday by saying the Foundation’s goals have always been to create an education system that allows every child to achieve their “God-given potential.”
“This is nothing more than an intimidation tactic by those who want to protect unions’ political power over students,” she wrote. “Students deserve better — it’s time for unions to stop playing politics with their future.”
Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Charter Schools USA, the company mentioned as employing Bennett’s wife, Tina Bennett, dismissed the union’s records request.
“We are aware of the records request and have no concerns,” she wrote.