Conservative Education Commissioner Tony Bennett Ready to Pursue School Reforms
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With education looming as one of the major issues of the 2013 legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday morning will introduce Tony Bennett, his new education commissioner, to the Florida Senate Education Committee. Bennett will be in the spotlight this legislative session as Scott continues his push for education reforms.
A former teacher, school principal and high school basketball coach, Bennett was elected to head Indiana’s public schools in 2008. Voters turned against him in 2012 and he lost his bid for a second term. In December the Florida Board of Education unanimously approved him to be Florida’s education commissioner.
After starting his new post last week, Bennett has already begun the process of introducing himself to Floridians.
“To say education is a family interest is an understatement,” Bennett noted on the blog he now runs at the Department of Education’s website. “I’ve spent nearly three decades in education as a science teacher and principal, as well as district and state superintendent. My wife, Tina, had a successful career as a teacher and high school principal. Also, one of my daughters, Trisha, recently joined the teaching profession and I could not be more proud. I’m sure many Floridians can relate to this background as it is not unusual to have a family full of educators.”
Bennett pledged to include more “collaboration” and insisted he “will not use a top-down approach to Florida’s education reform.” Continuing to sing out of the hymn book written by Florida Republicans like Scott and Jeb Bush, Bennett played up his commitment to accountability.
“Parents should feel confident that when their child graduates from high school he or she will be ready for today’s competitive environment,” Bennett insisted. “In turn, teachers should be praised for the tremendous work they do to transform their classrooms into launching pads for success. I believe that a strong accountability system must be met with a strong network of resources. Over the next few weeks, I will begin working with Florida’s school and community leaders to determine how we can create a seamless education system.”
Scott had kind words for Bennett when the Board of Education selected him in December.
“Tony has a great record of achievement in Indiana and I am confident he will be a tireless advocate for Florida's students,” said Scott. "I look forward to working with him on our goals to increase education funding and advocate for the professional development of Florida teachers, which is critical for student success."
But with Scott’s poll numbers continuing to remain weak, Bennett could have a hard time pushing the governor’s education agenda. According to Indiana political experts and commentators, Bennett was tuned out by many Republicans and Republican-leaning groups.
Despite Barack Obama carrying Indiana in 2008, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney won the state in 2012 with 54 percent of the vote. Bennett lagged behind in 2012 with only 47 percent, sealing his defeat. Mike Pence, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2012, won office with 50 percent of the vote.
A political consultant well-versed in Indiana politics spoke to Sunshine State News about Bennett’s electoral defeat in 2012.
“A lot of people were surprised by Bennett losing,” the consultant said. “Sure, he won by the skin of his teeth in 2008 but, remember, Obama carried Indiana and helped Democrats that year. Bennett badly underperformed in 2012. We all know the teachers' unions were out to get Bennett, but there were other factors. He lost a lot of support in the suburbs and rural areas who voted pretty straight Republican otherwise.”
The consultant acknowledged that Bennett did better in urban areas in 2012. But those gains were more than offset by suburban and rural voters who offered greater support for Bennett’s Democratic opponent in 2012 than they did in 2008. The consultant noted that Bennett lost a good deal of support on the I-69 corridor connecting Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. The consultant added that Bennett lost needed votes in and around Indianapolis.
“Bennett’s calls for school reform sunk with too many Republican traditional voters,” the consultant said. “They believe their schools are fine. They like their schools and their teachers and they thought Bennett was going out of his way to attack teachers. The teachers' unions really played that up and it worked to sink him. Bennett did better in urban areas where the schools are disasters but it wasn’t enough to save him. Look at some of the suburban counties. Bennett
ran 10 points behind Romney. A lot of his core voters were tuning him out.”
With Scott up for a second term next year, the governor is looking to push education reform this year in Tallahassee, including more focus for STEM education and nudging schools in the State College System to be more affordable.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News.