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Straight Up Conversation: New Florida Commissioner Tony Bennett

The alternative headline here would've been, "Denver Got P. Manning, Florida Gets T. Bennett." After all, it's been a tough year for Indiana; they keep shipping homegrown stars elsewhere. This spring, the Indianapolis Colts cut ties with all-world quarterback Peyton Manning, with the Denver Broncos outbidding several other franchises for his services. Last month, Indiana's voters turned out an iconic school reformer, state superintendent Tony Bennett, setting off another, though less glamorous, scrum. Indiana's loss turned out to be Florida's gain, as the State Board voted unanimously Wednesday to select Bennett as Florida's new education commissioner.

Bennett moves to a big state with an outsized reputation when it comes to education reform, but one that's been struggling to keep a strong state commissioner in place amidst concerns about politics and relations with the governor and the State Board of Education. Florida is also wrestling to implement Senate Bill 736, the nation's most radical effort to overhaul teacher evaluation, tenure, and pay. It's going to be messy because, while 736 got some big things right, it also got some big things really wrong. Florida is also where school reform icon Jeb Bush built his reputation and based his massively influential foundation, and it's no secret that Bush and Bennett are close. That only strengthens Bennett's hand. All in all, a coup for Florida, a great move for Bennett, and a situation that's going to be well worth watching. Yesterday, I chatted with Bennett about the move.

Rick Hess: So how did this whole thing come about?
Tony Bennett: I had read that Florida extended their search for a new commissioner after the election. I got in touch with their board chair, Gary Chartrand, he put me in touch with the search firm, and we took it from there. It took maybe four weeks from start to finish.

RH: When do you start the new job, and what are you doing to get up to speed?
TB: I'll start January 14th. I'll walk out of Indiana on Friday, January 11th, and I'll be in Florida and ready to go on Monday, the 14th. As for getting prepared, I'll be spending some time with [interim commissioner] Pam Stewart and her current staff, just trying to learn about various issues. I'm bringing in at least four people [from Indiana], who are going to help me get my arms wrapped around staffing, strategic initiatives, and how we transfer in.

RH: What most appealed to you about the new opportunity?
TB: You know, I loved doing the job I did [being state chief in Indiana]. I had a real dilemma as to whether I wanted to stay in Indiana and do something other than what I was doing, or if I was open to doing the job I love somewhere else. Florida has a rich history doing the same kinds of things we accomplished in Indiana. There is also an incredible openness among educators around these things in Florida. I'm confident we can have a big impact not only for Florida's kids, but also on the national education landscape. All that helped convince me to make the move.

RH: What gave you pause as you looked at Florida?
TB: Nothing, really. I have a close relationship with [former Florida commissioner] Eric [Smith], so I knew a lot of the context first-hand. I had a thorough understanding of how Governor Scott wants to use education for economic development and my conversations with the Board were incredible. The interview went well, and it was clear that this is where we wanted to be. When they called and said, "We want you," there was never a hesitation. I didn't have to stop and say, "Let's think about it." My wife and I had already discussed it and we decided that, if they wanted me, this is where we wanted to be.

RH: What's your take on some of the murmurs that the political situation is tough, that Florida has burned through two commissioners in Eric Smith and Gerard Robinson, and that it seems like it's a tough state to lead nowadays?
TB: Well, and I don't intend for any of this to come off as a criticism, Eric got caught up in the change of administration. As for Gerard, one of the things I bring to the table is four years of a strong, well-established record managing a state agency. That's experience you can't put a price on. I also have the experience and skills to make a smooth transition. The reason Florida is such an intriguing and exciting opportunity is that you have a governor that is firmly invested in using education for economic development, and then you have Jeb Bush and the Foundation [for Excellence in Education]. A commissioner who is able to bring those forces together can do big things for Florida. And that's a challenge I look forward to.

RH: What are some of the key challenges ahead for Florida?
TB: Common Core implementation is a huge piece. There is a much more universal acceptance of the Common Core in Florida than there was in Indiana. It's the implementation that is going to be very important. We really want to make sure that Florida is very intentional about continuing to lead the country - and we're going to work with the board, legislature, and governor to identify the next steps of reform. When I was in Florida [earlier this week], Governor Scott told me to address two things when we spoke to educators and administrators: Common Core implementation and SB 736. Those are going to be out front.

RH: Obviously, implementing SB 736, the big teacher bill, has been the subject of much angst. How will you think about moving forward there?
TB: Senate Bill 736 has created some challenges, but also some opportunities. It has and will continue to bring into focus how we think about the obstacles, the capacity challenges at the district level, and whether we need to make tweaks to the legislation. When I met with administrators and teachers the other day, I said nothing is off the table in terms of 736. We want to make sure this is an effective, efficient, fair, measure of teacher effectiveness. One thing I've been clear about is that I will not try to make Florida into Indiana, but I will bring the insight about what has worked there and combine it with what has historically worked well in Florida.

RH: What's the biggest lesson you learned from your experience in Indiana?
TB: This is something I wrestle with all the time. In Indiana, we moved very quickly. We did in four years what Florida did in eight or ten years. And I keep asking myself, is there anything we could have done differently and still got it all done? If I were to do all of those things over a longer period, I would have approached them differently when it came to how we sold the reforms and brought the education community on board. We didn't communicate with educators like we needed to. We did a good job explaining how the reforms were good for kids, but a poor job saying why they were also good for schools and educators. But we had a window of opportunity to do very big things in Indiana and we got them done. Now, Florida's a different situation, and we're going to work hard to do better when it comes to communicating with educators.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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