Putting Education Reform To The Test

Bennett Isn’t Backing Down To His Critics

Gina Jordan/StateImpact Florida

Commissioner Tony Bennett says parents are the best experts on their kids' schooling.

Education Commissioner Tony Bennett is a lightning rod for criticism — and he knows it.

He had his share of critics in Indiana, where he lost his reelection as state superintendent last November.

“We couldn’t overcome the rhetoric of the teachers unions and the undercurrent that they generated,” Bennett told The Huffington Post a day after his defeat.

“It was a mandate to basically say that Tony Bennett isn’t a good person who doesn’t like public education,” Bennett said.

He quickly found work in Florida, where he was eager to join state leaders who were not opposed to parental choice or to competition.

But Bennett continues to take hits from opponents who say he wants to privatize public education and just shouldn’t be trusted.

Here’s a sampling of comments from StateImpact Florida readers:   

  • Dr.TinEd: Notice those “crazy eyes?” Get used to it! He always gets that look when he sees an opportunity to give big contracts to his campaign donors!
  • 7David_Cook4: I’m sorry for you Florida. We kicked him out.
  • Dr.T: Whatever Bennett says, take it with a HUGE grain of salt. Check his facts – he often fabricates them. Check the SOURCE of his facts – they are nearly always groups who stand to profit from his policy.
  • Concerned Educator: In 37 years of teaching I have never experienced anyone as negative as Tony Bennett. He treats teachers as enemies, and has created a climate of division in our state….I had hoped Mr. Bennett had learned from his problems in Indiana, but I don’t think he has.

When Bennett was hired in Florida, he quickly learned how the Florida Education Association felt about him.

FEA President Andy Ford issued a statement, saying in part:

“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.

In Indiana, teachers and education professionals felt he was blaming them for all of the state’s education woes.

We certainly hope he has learned his lessons by being rejected in Indiana. But we’re skeptical.”

Now, one of Bennett’s priorities – the parent trigger bill — has been defeated for the second year in a row in the Florida Senate.The bill would have given parents additional power to petition for federal turnaround options at their child’s chronically failing school.

Bennett isn’t swayed.

“I believe that we need more good schools, not just more schools,” Bennett said.

He said he tries not to pay a lot of attention to those who question his motives.

“I have a daughter that’s a public school teacher,” Bennett said. “I don’t think I would ever want written on my headstone that here lies the man that was out to destroy the system where his child worked.”

“Let’s not forget all of my children went to public schools,” he said.

In spite of the criticism, Bennett has no plans to change course.

He said education is evolving toward parents having a greater voice.

“I would argue that historically many times parents did go unlistened to,” Bennett said. “I have always been a supporter of however we need to give parents a choice.”


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