TALLAHASSEE (AP) — As schools chief in Indiana, Florida’s new education commissioner had a reputation as a hard-charging, caustic, union-battling advocate for the kind of conservative policies pushed by former Sunshine State Gov. Jeb Bush — a friend and supporter of the Republican.
Tony Bennett’s style didn’t sit well with Indiana voters. In November, they voted him out of office after one term in favor of school librarian Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, while electing another Republican governor and backing Mitt Romney in the presidential race.
Bennett may fare better when he begins his new job Monday in Florida, where Republicans control the governor’s office and Legislature. His agenda includes private school vouchers, charter schools, accountability standards for school administrators and teachers, high-stakes testing, and teacher pay based on annual evaluations. Florida already has adopted many of the changes he fought for in Indiana.
And in Florida, Bennett won’t answer to voters. The governor-appointed State Board of Education has the power to hire — and fire — education commissioners.
Bennett, 52, and most of the board members share a devotion to Bush, who continues to influence education policies through his Foundation for Florida’s Future.
“Gov. Bush is an admirer of Tony for his boldness and courage in doing the education reforms that were done in Indiana,” said Patricia Levesque, the foundation’s executive director. “There’s a mutual understanding and respect that Gov. Bush has for education reformers and they have for him.”
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels introduced Bush to Bennett in 2008.
“We began to pursue the Florida blueprint,” Bennett said. “Gov. Bush came to Indiana and assisted us in just about every way possible. We’ve had a close working relationship since then.”
Bennett is chairman of Chiefs for Change, a group of state school leaders formed by the Foundation for Excellence in Education and also created by Bush to promote his policies nationally.
Bush, along with three of the seven Florida board members, contributed to Bennett’s unsuccessful re-election campaign, according to Indiana campaign records.
Indiana State Teachers Association President Nate Schnellenberger said he hoped Bennett learned something from his defeat in the race.
“It was always his way or the highway,” Schnellenberger said.
Bennett doesn’t deny that he’s aggressive, but he said the top-down image is a caricature drawn by his opponents.
“Passionate aggression is mistaken for rigid, but I think people who know me best wouldn’t describe me as rigid,” Bennett said.
His Indiana allies included House Education Chairman Bob Behning, who said opponents distorted Bennett’s image and that he simply was carrying out policies set by the General Assembly. Behning said Bennett puts children first and is dedicated to improving schools.
“He’s totally committed and will pursue it to the end,” Behning said.
Schnellenberger acknowledged that Bennett is passionate and credited him with putting education on the front burner in Indiana.
But Rick Muir, president of the Indiana Federation of Teachers, said he didn’t have anything good to say about Bennett.
“He completely devastated public education in Indiana,” Muir said.
He criticized Bennett for leading efforts to limit teachers’ collective bargaining rights, bringing in for-profit companies to manage failing schools, and favoring private and parochial schools through a voucher system that’s broader, though smaller, than Florida’s two programs.
Florida limits vouchers, which let students attend private schools at public expense, to disabled and low-income children. Indiana’s is open to low- and middle-income students.
Florida, through its consulting firm, approached Bennett to apply for the education commissioner’s job in 2011 after Gov. Rick Scott pressured Eric Smith to resign. Bennett declined. Smith now is executive director of Chiefs for Change.
The state board hired another Chiefs for Change member, Gerard Robinson, but he resigned last summer after about a year on the job, citing separation from his family in Virginia, where he had been secretary of education.
Bennett was selected for the job in December. He said he has spoken with Scott several times since and that the governor stressed he wants public schools to be a primary driver of economic development by preparing students for jobs and college.
Bennett — who has bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in education — was a teacher, coach and principal who worked through the administrative ranks to school superintendent in Clarksville, Ind., before running for state office in 2008, according to his application for the Florida job. Bennett said before 2008, he had little involvement in politics, but friends urged him to run for state superintendent when the incumbent decided not to seek re-election.
During his job interview with Florida’s board, Bennett acknowledged that he can be caustic and impersonal and that opposition from the teacher’s unions was a big reason he was defeated in Indiana.
Bennett also stressed that he attempted to seek input from teachers, administrators and community members with town hall meetings across Indiana, though union leaders there called them a sham. Bennett said he plans to hold meetings in Florida, too.
“We have to reach out and talk about education reform so that it resonates with the average Floridian and the average Hoosier,” Bennett said. “Our greatest lesson and challenge is how do we message the need to improve education without the risk of our opponents painting us as something we are not.”