State education board to discuss commissioner vacancy

The state Board of Education will hold an in-person meeting Tuesday – its first since state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned and parent groups called for an overhaul of the school grading system.

The board plans to discuss the “next steps” in naming Bennett’s permanent replacement, as well as next year’s education budget.

But the agenda says very little about the controversial Common Core State Standards, or the yet unanswered question of which exams will replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.

Also absent from the agenda: any discussion of the school grading system that became a lightning rod earlier this summer.

Board Chairman Gary Chartrand said some of those issues would likely be discussed anyway.

“We have a full agenda,” Chartrand said. “There will be report from the commissioner addressing many of those topics.”

Still, parent activists and union leaders said they were disappointed by the lack of transparency, particularly regarding the next generation of student assessments.

“It’s more of the same,” Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow said. “It’s machinations behind the scenes.”

The past two months have left many unanswered questions for teachers, parents and policy makers.

Tea party groups, conservative moms and even some liberal teachers have been leaning on the education department to abandon the new national benchmarks known as the Common Core standards.

In July, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford suggested Florida pull out of the multi-state consortium creating tests to accompany the new standards.

But they never got a firm reply. Bennett resigned as education commissioner in early August, on the heels of a grade-changing flap in Indiana, where he previously worked. The controversy raised new questions about Florida’s own system of grading schools, and prompted some parent groups to call for a moratorium on the grades.

Most of those issues have yet to be resolved, despite Gov. Rick Scott’s convening a three-day education summit late last month.

Kathleen Oropeza, of the parent advocacy group Fund Education Now, said she was bothered the state board did not plan to discuss school grades or the new standardized tests.

“We are entering the fourth week of school with no serious discussion about [the exams] and no plan,” she said. “What’s going to happen next? We all should be concerned about that.”

Chartrand, the board chairman, said he would be awaiting an update from interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart on the tests.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes.”

The agenda does call for the approval of the legislative budget request, which tops $16 billion for Florida schools and colleges, as well as the approval of several new college programs.

The agenda also addresses the commissioner vacancy. It does not, however, say whether the board will launch a national search or hire Stewart into the permanent post.

Board member John Padget, a former Monroe County schools superintendent, said he supports selecting Stewart.

“Pam’s knowledge of the department will enable Florida to continue rapid and smooth implementation of Common Core State Standards, which is my first priority,” he wrote in an email to the Herald/Times.

Board member John Colon, of Manatee County, also said it would be beneficial to have someone with Florida experience, and noted that Stewart had served as interim commissioner before.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.