The state Board of Education has named Tony Bennett education commissioner, keeping Florida on track with the reforms initiated by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999. Bennett's support for teacher pay tied to performance, greater school choice, regular testing and letter grades for schools roiled many parents and teachers in Indiana, where he served as education boss before being denied re-election in November.
It was a bitter campaign that drew plenty of out-of-state interest. Many considered it a referendum on the nationwide school-reform effort that has been unpopular among rank-and-file teachers, although Bennett disagrees with that assessment.
He was a unanimous choice of the Florida board. After his selection last week, Bennett, 52, fielded questions from reporters on several occasions in Tampa. Here are his views on some hot-button education issues in his own words.
On landing the Florida job
"I'm humbled and honored. I think this state is so vitally important to the national education discussion. And I look forward to working with Gov. (rick) Scott, who has an incredible amount of foresight on the issue of the linkage between education and jobs. If you're going to be successful at creating jobs, you have to be successful at creating a pipeline to fill those jobs."
On former Gov. Jeb Bush
"There's no question I have a very strong relationship with Gov. Bush. He helped us in Indiana during my four years. The Foundation (Bush's education think tank, the Foundation for Florida's Future) had an incredible impact. With Gov. Scott's vision, and the rich history that was started by Gov. Bush, and building on those things, Florida is in a position to be the envy of the country."
On teachers' resistance to the school reform effort
"I firmly believe that you have to communicate vision. We have to find the linkage to communicate with Florida's teachers. Frankly, it's probably a place over the last four years in Indiana where we probably didn't do a good job. I think there are times we have not done a good job of reaching out and discussing with educators how this is good for them. And as a consequence, many of us have been depicted as 'angry reformers.' "
On teachers' resistance to the evaluation process
"The gnashing of teeth that we hear about this from very well-intentioned, passionate teachers, isn't that they don't want to be evaluated; they want to know that the system is fair. And we have to accept the fact that in this country, the discussion around evaluation is relatively new. Many times we are confronted with the concept that we had an imperfect system, we are now replacing it with a system that is going to have its own imperfections, yet people think we are going to replace imperfection with perfection. We have to be very honest and very open about the discussion."
On problems with the state's evaluation data
"First and foremost, the department must be credible and make sure that what we do is accurate and is done in the most transparent and fair manner. I think that builds credibility in the field. We have to take a look at legislation. Does the legislation need to be tweaked? We need to address this issue with the mentality that everything's on the table to be discussed."
On school choice
"I am an unabashed advocate for school choice. I am a public school educator whose daughter teaches in the public schools. My children went to public schools. I want to give that as a context, because many people want to say, 'Tony Bennett's a private school guy, he supports private school choice.' I am a public school guy, who, when I was a public school superintendent, supported charter schools and vouchers in our state.
"First and foremost, it's about social justice. Now, my children are grown. If I had school-age children and this happened to me today, what would I do? I would get my family down to Tallahassee, and we would drive around and decide where the best schools are. Guess what? I have school choice, because I can afford it.
"I believed every parent in the state of Indiana should have the same choice I had because I could afford it. That's social justice. Every child should be able to live the American dream the way the Bennett children lived the American dream. Number one, I believe it's a socially just public policy. Two, we've seen in Indiana that competition does improve education."
"I am one of those who believe that testing is valuable. I believe that good use of assessment data drives instruction. And I believe assessment does not sit aside from instruction, it sits along inside instruction. We have to think about that, and we have to talk about that."
On losing his re-election bid in Indiana
"Because of the scope and magnitude of the reforms, I became the face of that. And frankly, I believe it was more of a mandate about Tony Bennett than it was about education reform. I don't think anyone in the country believes we shouldn't be changing education. Not necessarily that education's bad. But even in the best schools, we've got to get better, and I think that's what education reform is about. I don't think what you saw in Indiana was a mandate on education reform."