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December 13, 2012

Bennett heading to Florida

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s top schools official, defeated in his bid for re-election here, is headed to Florida to become that state’s education commissioner.

Florida’s State Board of Education announced the decision Thursday, after board members unanimously voted to hire Bennett as to oversee the state’s public schools and colleges as the Florida Commissioner of Education.

He was chosen from among three finalists who were interviewed, including Murray State University President Randy Dunn and a nationally known education consultant, Charles Hokanson Jr.

Bennett, 52, a Republican who gained a national reputation for implementing sweeping education reforms in Indiana’s K-12 schools, was turned out of office in Indiana after voters picked a political newcomer, Democrat Glenda Ritz, to become Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The Florida post, unlike Bennett’s position in Indiana, is an appointed job.

Florida board members said they picked Bennett because of his experience in efforts they’re attempting to duplicate in Florida, including new academic assessments of student learning and a push to adopt Common Core academic standards.

“I think his ability to be up to speed quickly will be very important for the state of Florida,” board member John Padget told the Orlando Sentinel newspaper.

During Bennett’s term in office, the Indiana legislature passed several key education laws modeled on Florida laws that created vouchers for private schools and an A to F grading system for schools and districts based in large part on student test scores.

In a statement released Thursday, Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, praised Bennett for his work in Indiana. “Tony has a great record of achievement in Indiana and I am confident he will be a tireless advocate for Florida’s students,” Scott said.

Some Florida parents’ groups, including the Florida PTA, had opposed Bennett and the two other finalists selected by the board. In a letter sent to Scott on Tuesday, the leaders of nine parents’ groups said Bennett and the two other finalists “apparently endorse an extreme reform agenda that does not represent our vision of public education.”

The Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers union, issued a statement after the board’s decision, criticizing Bennett’s appointment. The statement said union leaders were “disappointed and disheartened” by his selection.

Bennett came under harsh criticism from the teachers’ unions in Indiana which accused him of unfairly criticizing teachers and undermining teacher morale. Ritz, in her successful campaign against Bennett, accused him of aggressively implementing changes in K-12 schools that weren’t intended by lawmakers.

But he was praised by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who championed the reforms that Bennett oversaw. Bennett also won support from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Florida state board member Kathleen Shanahan told the Orlando Sentinel that she liked that Bennett had worked in public schools and had “real time, real recent” experience running a state system. The newspaper reported that Bennett will likely start work in mid-January, after his term in Indiana ends. According to the newspaper, Bennett’s predecessor was making $275,000 when he resigned in July. His salary in Indiana was $85,000 a year.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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