Indiana's top education official became the latest head of Florida public schools this week and will head a system in which stakeholders are grappling over changes to standards, school choice and a move by Gov. Rick Scott to bolster accountability among all publicly funded schools.
Tony Bennett, Indiana's superintendent for public education, took over Florida's sprawling education system, and its $17 billion budget directly affecting more than 2.5 million students.
A vocal advocate for charter schools, the new commish officially entered the fray as Scott announced and then reiterated his support for requiring publicly funded charter schools to meet the same academic standards of the traditional public schools they were created to supplement, or, some would say, replace.
While Bennett was changing jobs, former Gov. Charlie Crist changed parties, officially cutting ties with the GOP and continuing his migration from conservative Republican to moderate Democrat. Crist's actions fueled fresh speculation over his political future and that of a handful of would-be opponents within his newfound political fold.
Florida lawmakers, meanwhile, will have more money to spend when they return in March, a panel of economists estimated Friday as the state continues to recover. Over the next 18 months, collections will include an additional $391.7 million for the period ending June 30, 2014.
And Florida Power & Light will also have more money to spend after the Public Service Commission this week approved a $350 million rate hike over the objections of the agency's own consumer watchdog. The plan had been blessed by FPL's largest commercial clients.
BENNETT TAKES REIN OF SCHOOLS:
In a unanimous vote, the State Board of Education selected Tony Bennett from a short list of finalists to head Florida public schools, the third appointment in a little more than a year.
Board members pointed to his experience and work on some of the same reform efforts that Florida is pushing, including a nationwide guideline for curriculum known as the common core standards.
Elected to his Indiana post in 2008, Bennett lost his re-election bid last month.
"Tony has a great record of achievement in Indiana and I am confident he will be a tireless advocate for Floridas students," said Gov. Rick Scott, who also has embraced common core standards.
While applauded by Scott, the pick sparked criticism from Florida Education Association President Andy Ford, who called Bennett a "divisive" leader who will continue the assault on public school teachers, most of whom are represented by the FEA.
"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 that has drawn fire from teachers, parents and experts in the field," Ford said in a statement.
Scott threw a little wrinkle into Bennett's list of priorities. Speaking to reporters earlier in the week, Scott said he'd like to see charter schools adhere to the same achievement standards as traditional public schools.
Scott's remarks were a marked departure from the status quo established during Jeb Bush's tenure that has held private charters to a different set of standards. With common core curriculum gaining national favor, Scott said it's only fair to require all publicly funded schools to meet muster.
"I believe anybody that gets state dollars ought to be under the same standards," Scott said.
Bennett replaces interim Commissioner Pam Stewart, who took over after Gerard Robinson resigned last summer amid controversies surrounding Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores and the botched rollout of school grades.
CRIST CROSSES, MOVE NOT UNEXPECTED:
Capping months of speculation but little surprise, former Gov. Charlie Crist officially switched to the Democratic Party during a media event in St. Petersburg.
Crist, whose drift from the RPOF began during his term as governor -- remember his veto of merit pay and Cabinet vote for automatic restoration of civil rights for former felons -- has increasingly come out for Democratic causes. He even made a speech during the Democratic National Convention.
Basking in the newfound freedom, Crist said he erred by opposing same-sex marriage, the latest in a series of political mea culpa moments for the man once known as "Chain Gang Charlie" for his efforts to restore the fabled work crews to Florida's roadways.
REVENUE ESTIMATES UP:
Florida's economic engine is beginning to rumble. A panel of economists from the governor's office and the Legislature on Friday revised general revenue projections upward to reflect stronger-than-expected performance in a number of key economic sectors.
Refinancing and improved sales tax collections prompted state economists on Friday to up their projection for the current and upcoming fiscal years. The panel said general revenue collections for the current fiscal year ending June 30 were $236 million higher than its last estimate in August.
For the 2013-14 fiscal year, the forecast was up $155.7 million
PSC GRANT'S FPL LIST OVER PUBLIC COUNSEL OBJECTION:
Florida Power & Light won a $350 million rate hike this week as the Public Service Commission approved a package of rate increases favored by FPL's largest customers but objected to by Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, whose office represents consumers in utility cases.
Following the vote, Kelly said he would "strongly consider" appealing the decision to the Florida Supreme Court. Kelly has argued for months that FPL's base rates should drop -- not increase -- next year.
FPL early this year filed a proposal to raise base electric rates by $516.5 million in January 2013, but it announced in August that it had reached a settlement agreement with groups of large electricity users. That proposal called for an initial $378 million increase in January and three future increases when new power plants start operating.
The four-year deal approved Thursday will lead to a $350 million increase in January, while continuing to allow FPL to raise base rates in the future for the new plants
STORY OF THE WEEK: Former Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett, (no, not the crooner) is named Florida education commissioner by a unanimous vote of the State Board of Education.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "If people want to ask me about being gay, I'll talk about that. If you want to talk to me about the budget, I'll talk about that." Rep. David Richardson, a Democrat and Miami Beach businessman who is one of two openly gay members elected to the Florida House in November.