Just five weeks after voters ousted him from office, Tony Bennett already has a new gig.
The trailblazing but controversial Indiana schools chief, a key force in implementing Gov. Mitch Daniels’ broad education reform agenda, was named Florida’s education commissioner Wednesday.
A hero in the education reform movement and a villain to teachers unions, Mr. Bennett was hailed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott for his “great track record of achievement in Indiana.”
Mr. Bennett will replace Chancellor of Public Schools Pam Stewart, who had served in an interim role for three months.
“I look forward to getting out, visiting schools, and meeting with and listening to students, parents, teachers and leaders in districts across the state as we work together to ensure that every student in Florida has the kind of world-class education that allows them to flourish,” Mr. Bennett said.
His backing of charter school expansion, private school vouchers, merit pay for teachers and other steps has made him one of the most recognizable figures in a reform movement that also counts among its leaders other Republicans, such as Mr. Daniels, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
“Florida couldn’t have landed a bigger rock star in terms of the education community,” said Adam Emerson, a Florida-based analyst with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. “The evening Tony Bennett lost, the wheels started moving in Florida. Indiana and Louisiana had taken a bigger spotlight [in education reform], but this is the jolt that Florida needs to create its own buzz.”
Mr. Bennett’s appointment was, not surprisingly, immediately panned by Florida’s teachers unions, who believe Mr. Scott and the state Board of Education “have ignored the parents and teachers of our state” with the pick.
“Bennett proved to be divisive in his tenure in the same position in Indiana. He is a champion of the testing mania, unchecked expansion of charter schools and voucher programs, and has proven to advance the Jeb Bush education agenda,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association. “We certainly hope he has leaned his lessons by being rejected in Indiana. But we’re skeptical.”
Mr. Bennett is no stranger to outspoken opposition from the nation’s teachers unions. Indiana’s leading labor groups were among his harshest critics and led a determined effort to defeat him in the Nov. 6 election.
Those attempts ultimately were successful, as Mr. Bennett lost to veteran teacher Glenda Ritz, a Democrat.
The future of Indiana’s education reforms is now in doubt without Mr. Bennett at the helm, though Ms. Ritz will be limited in her power since the changes were enacted by the state legislature.
Mr. Bennett’s defeat was one in a string of setbacks for the school reform movement, which has also seen Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to restrict teachers’ collective bargaining power struck down by a judge.
In Louisiana, Mr. Jindal’s school vouchers program recently was ruled unconstitutional, though he promised this week to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.