Indiana’s Tony Bennett Appointed to Lead Florida Schools

Tony Bennett, who will soon relinquish his post as Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction after a surprise defeat to his Democratic challenger last month, will ply his education reform trade in Florida instead. In a unanimous vote this week, Bennett was selected to become the state’s Chancellor of Public Schools, replacing Pam Stewart.

Stewart has been filling the post on an interim basis after the resignation of Gerard Robinson late this summer.

Bennett said that he plans to continue to abide by his small-government philosophy, believing that the best results are achieved by setting out metrics and leaving it to districts to decide how to meet them. Speaking at the Roland Park K-8 Magnet School, he promised to keep in constant contact with districts around the state, and said that he wanted to make himself a barrier between schools and any meddling by the department of education.

The chairman of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change organization, Bennett, 52, said just about the only job he could enjoy more than the Indiana post would be in Florida. “This state is so vitally important to the national education conversation,” he said.

The job he faces is a big one, with Florida changing its testing model and moving to a more challenging curriculum standard, Common Core. The state is also making a transition to digital learning and progressing with new teacher evaluations.

Governor Rick Scott, who supported Bennett’s candidacy and appeared with him at Roland Park, said that where Florida’s education system goes, so goes the entire state economy. Scott added that one of the first priorities facing Bennett will be the improvement of the state’s teacher evaluation system.

Although his reception at Roland was enthusiastic, not everyone connected with education in Florida was similarly thrilled with Bennett’s appointment. Teachers especially expressed reservations, in particular over Bennett’s support for extensive testing.

They fear Bennett will bring even more high-stakes testing and push to further privatize education at a time when counties are struggling to implement many of the state’s mandates over performance pay and common core standards.

“He’s pro-testing, pro-charter schools, pro-vouchers. He’s everything that teachers dread,” said Debra Wilhelm, president of the Classroom Teachers Association in Palm Beach. “We don’t feel as though the state had any consideration for teachers whatsoever.”

Mike Dowling, who teaches at Emerald Cove Middle School in Wellington, questioned the wisdom of selecting a candidate who lost his bid for reelection this month for “being too extreme.” Dowling added that he considered Bennett to be a terrible choice.

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