December 12, 2012

Outgoing Indiana superintendent tapped as Florida's new education commissioner

Tony Bennett, Indiana's outgoing superintendent of public instruction, is headed to Florida to take on a similar job.

Tony Bennett, Indiana's outgoing superintendent of public instruction, is headed to Florida to take on a similar job.

The Florida Board of Education on Wednesday unanimously selected Bennett as the state's new education commissioner, winding up a four-month search. The state needed a new commissioner after Gerard Robinson abruptly resigned a year into his tenure.

"His ability to be up to speed quickly would be very important for the state of Florida," board member John Padget said of Bennett.

Board member A.K. Desai praised Bennett for his pledge to stick to accountability and reform efforts, but also travel the state to hear how stakeholders can be more a part of the system.

"Bringing them on board will be absolutely necessary," Desai said. "He heard that from all of us … and he has expressed his willingness to take on that very important task."

"We have a great opportunity to continue Florida's moment," Bennett said, receiving applause after the unanimous board vote.

Bennett's name emerged as a possibility the same November day he lost his reelection bid in Indiana. He's considered a "rock star" in education reform circles, an ally of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and the outcomes-based accountability measures that Bush promotes such as school grading and third-grade retention.

In his interview with the board on Tuesday, Bennett talked mostly about philosophy and policy.

He spoke about the importance of keeping students first in mind and not letting any fall behind. He argued that there's no such thing as teaching to the test if a state is using a valid assessment to determine whether students have learned the academic standards that teachers are supposed to be teaching.

"Assessment doesn't sit aside from instruction," he said. "It is part of instruction."

Bennett also spoke passionately about the need to implement the Common Core standards, which Florida has adopted. His support of the standards contributed to his election loss in Indiana, as some in the tea party opposed the idea of a "national curriculum."

Bennett and others have rejected the idea that the Common Core, which provides optional academic guidelines, is a national curriculum.

To make good policy work, Bennett stressed, the state must pair its policy discussion with its budget discussion to ensure money gets to the right programs. He said he would "absolutely" tell the board and governor if he felt they were heading in the wrong direction.

The board still would have to negotiate a contract with Bennett. The job is advertised with a salary of up to $275,000, the same amount Robinson earned.

Bennett earned $79,400 as Indiana's state schools chief. Before winning that job, he had been a teacher, coach, principal and superintendent in Indiana public and parochial schools.

He is a major supporter of private school vouchers, charter schools and online education.

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