Pam Stewart, Tony Bennett’s Florida Replacement, Plans to be Cautious

Pam Stewart has taken over the position of Florida’s education commissioner on an interim basis after last week’s resignation of Tony Bennett, who held the post since January of this year. Stewart will be the 6th commissioner under Governor Rick Scott.

Bennett resigned under pressure after Associated Press published a story alleging that he changed the school grading system to benefit the charter school operated by a political donor when he held the top education job in Indiana.

According to Jeffrey S. Solochek of the Tampa Bay Times, earlier this week Stewart indicated that some major changes could be coming to Florida’s education system, including its approach to standardized testing and the controversial A-to-F school grading formula. However, Stewart’s announcement also included a note of caution, indicating that whatever reforms she might adopt, she will not be adopting them without consideration.

“I think they are urgent. But it’s important to be very thoughtful and careful about that kind of decision. That is what I am trying to be,” Stewart told the Tampa Bay Times in her first media interview since being named to the post. “I am trying to be responsive, but I am also trying to make sure that it’s the right direction and we’re doing the right thing and we aren’t hasty. I’m taking my time and being careful, but being very mindful of the urgency.”

Many lawmakers consider Florida’s top education priority to be the adoption plan for the Common Core Standards. Stewart didn’t commit herself one way or the other on Common Core, merely acknowledging the pressure coming from legislators and adding that at the moment teachers and administrators should focus on the system rolled out in the state this year. Stewart made these remarks when she spoke at a financial literacy education conference in Tampa Bay on Monday.

She also was mindful of concerns raised from several fronts, including members of the Florida Board of Education, that the state’s school grading and accountability system needed an overhaul.

The debate gained a national audience as Bennett resigned over reported manipulations of Indiana’s school grading system, which was based on Florida’s.

But Stewart had no timetable for taking action.

Stewart has considerable experience in Florida’s education establishment. She held the interim job prior to Bennett’s hiring and has been with the organization for years, except when she served a short stint as the superintendent of St. Johns County.

At the same time, she added, she hoped to provide some vision as the state looks ahead. Whether that translates into Stewart losing the “interim” part of her title remains to be seen.