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Tony Bennett Named New Florida Education Chief

Former Indiana superintendent Tony Bennett has been selected as the new education commissioner in Florida, the state board of education announced Dec. 12, just five weeks after Bennett lost his re-election bid in Indiana.

Bennett was interviewed Dec. 11 along with two other candidates, Charles Hokanson Jr. and Randy Dunn.

"We still have more work to do as we continue our transition to Common Core State Standards and ensure we offer a world-class education to Florida's students. Tony has had a tremendous impact on education in Indiana, and we are delighted to have him lead Florida into the future," state board president Gary Chartrand said in a statement released Dec. 12.

Ever since he lost the Nov. 6 election in Indiana to Democrat Glenda Ritz, Bennett, a Republican, seemed like a natural fit for Florida's top education post. He is the president of Chiefs for Change, a group of state superintendents who push for changes to teacher evaluations and for expanded school choice. That group is affiliated with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an advocacy group led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose policy legacy and influence in the state remains significant.

For many in the "education reform" community, Bennett was also a prototypical superintendent for his aggressive record in the Hoosier State, regardless of how voters in 2012 felt about him. At the same time, Bennett (as well as Dunn) told the state board that "they see the commissioner's role as implementing rather than setting policy, which they said is the job of the board, Legislature and [GOP Gov.] Rick Scott," the Indianapolis Star reported when Bennett got the Florida education chief's job. So at least with his public comments, Bennett wants to be deferential to other political heavyweights in Florida.

One big issue that Bennett will have to deal with when he takes over is Florida's Race to the Top grant, which as my colleague Michele McNeil has reported has been problematic for the state since it was awarded the grant in 2010. But Bennett, who some claim lost his Indiana job because of his consistent public support for the common core, will presumably be very involved in and be a strong advocate for the common standards in Florida in the next few years, as Chartrand appeared to recognize in his statement.

It will also be interesting to see how Bennett publicly handles, and whether he privately pushes for, recent controversial K-12 proposals in the state, such as a parent-trigger law that narrowly went down to defeat in this year's legislative session.

At the same time, if Republican Gov. Rick Scott's statement on Bennett's hiring is any indication, Bennett could be presiding over more cash when he takes over: "I am holding Tony accountable for driving the College and Career FIRST Agenda forward in support of Florida's students and teachers. 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."

What about those who don't like Bennett's selection? In a statement, Florida Education Association President Andy Ford had this to say: "Bennett proved to be divisive in his tenure in the same position in Indiana and was voted out of office last month in the conservative state. 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."

Bennett will take over for the last full-time education commissioner in the Sunshine State, Gerard Robinson, who resigned in August after just one tumultuous year highlighted by problems on the FCAT, the state accountability exam, after previously serving in the top K-12 education post in Virginia.

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