Tony Bennett has resigned his post as Florida's Education Commissioner after the Associated Press reported that he might have changed his school rating system in Indiana to benefit a school run by an influential political donor. Although Bennett denied the allegations, he nevertheless heeded increasingly loud calls for his resignation, saying that continuing to hold the position would cause a distraction.
The Associated Press published a story that included excerpts from Bennett's emails sent last year that discussed altering the new A-F rating system after Christel House, a charter school run by Christel DeHaan, received a C instead of an expected A. Bennett called the report unfounded and said that it was nothing but a political smear.
"I end my tenure with my head held very high, looking ahead, knowing that great things are ahead for this state under the leadership of Gov. Scott and the state Board of Education," he said.
Board Chairman Gary Chartrand recommended K-12 chancellor Pam Stewart serve as interim commissioner. The board will consider the proposal in an emergency conference call Friday.
After Bennett's emails came to light, he was subject to criticism not only by those who have long opposed his policy positions, but even by some supporters.
Kathleen McGrory and Jeffery S. Solocheck of the Tampa Bay Times write that this will not only undermine efforts to reform Florida's own school assessment scheme but will also give a black eye to Governor Rick Scott who hired Bennett after he lost his Indiana reelection fight last November to Democrat Glenda Ritz.
However, even before the Associated Press report, Bennett had been under fire from the state's superintendents as well as union leaders for continuing to tinker with the state's school assessment formula. The latest controversy was the revelation that a growing number of Florida schools were being labeled as failing despite the fact that students were performing better on their standardized exams.
Stability has also been an issue. The Education Department has had three education commissioners and two interims during Scott's 31 months in office.
"We've got so many issues and items that need effective leadership and we've gone through a series of commissioners," Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego said.
Bennett was recruited to Florida late last year to provide steady leadership after the abrupt resignation of former Commissioner Gerard Robinson.
He encountered some bumps in June, when superintendents leaned on him to institute a "safety net" to prevent school grades from crashing in light of new, more challenging state exams. Despite initial misgivings, Bennett ultimately conceded.