Editor's Note: Shortly after Tony Bennett began as the state's Education Commissioner last December, he sat down with WLRN's former StateImpact reporter Sarah Gonzalez. They talked about his time as head of Indiana's school system and what plans he had for Florida's.
Tony Bennett drove from Indiana over the weekend to start his first day as schools chief in Florida on Monday.
Last month the State Board of Education hired Bennett, a Republican who served as Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction for one term.
He lost his re-election bid there after Democrat Glenda Ritz organized a grassroots campaign with help from the teachers union.
Bennett was viewed by some as being too aggressive towards teachers and not showing enough compassion when he pushed new policies, such as merit pay.
Q: Let me first ask you, why did you want to be the Education Commissioner in Florida?
A: Florida afforded me the opportunity to continue to do a job that I love to do, but it also, even to a greater extent allowed us the greatest opportunity to affect children. Not only the 2.7 million in Florida but also this state could affect the national footprint and the national debate on education reform.
Q: In Indiana your job was to work with the governor, Mitch Daniels, to kind of push Indiana schools in another direction. But Florida already has a lot of the policies that you pushed through in Indiana: merit pay for teachers, teacher evaluations, holding back third graders who don’t read at grade level.
Now when you were a finalist for the position in Florida, it was a bit controversial. Some people pointed out that more than a million people in Indiana voted not to re-elect you as superintendent. Why do you think you didn’t get re-elected in Indiana?
A: I came to this job in 2009 to work with a governor who literally gave me, if you will, a blank slate and said do the right thing for Indiana children and I’ll support you. I told governor Daniels in 2009 that if we did this job that way, it would likely lead to a backlash that could limit me to be a one term state chief. And I told him I was comfortable with that.
Q: And when you talk about this backlash, I imagine you’re talking some of the backlash coming from public school teachers in Indiana, right?
A: There’s no question, Sarah. But hey, if improving teacher quality in our state by treating teachers the way they should be treated as professionals, if that caused me to lose on November 6, 2012, so be it, I’m okay with that.
Q: Gerard Robinson is Florida’s former education commissioner. He walked away from the job in July for family reasons. But one of his legacies is a controversy over standardized test scores. He increased the requirements on the FCAT, Florida’s standardized test, and then when too many students got low scores he lowered the requirements again so more students would do better.
Do you agree with that decision?
A: I think part of the issue that Gerard may have gotten into is his administration and his pursuit of adjusting [cut-off scores] was like the first time it had been done in a dozen years. Re-setting cut scores on a more regular basis provides a safeguard against the exact phenomenon that you described.
Q: Now you are a former science teacher yourself.
A: Yes ma’am.
Q: Teacher evaluations are a hot-button issue and one of the big areas of concern in Florida is that some teachers — including science teachers and history teachers — are evaluated on the test scores of subjects they don’t teach.
I’m wondering what you think of that policy because I know the state system for teacher evaluations in Indiana kind of allows for teachers to be evaluated on subjects they teach.
A: What I can tell you today is we are engaged in a full scale review to see what we can do to bring a system of evaluation to Florida teachers and schools and communities that really holds true to the big ideas of educator evaluations.
Q: Okay Mr. Bennett, thank you for your time.
A: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed the interview.