Bennett was one of three finalists the State Board of Education interviewed this week after 64 people applied for the position Gerard Robinson vacated this summer. Bennett comes from Indiana, where, last month, voters did not retain him as that state’s schools superintendent.
Before taking the official vote on Wednesday, Florida’s Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand said, he happened to be seated next to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels at a conference last week, and he asked him bout Bennett.
“And his comment was, ‘I’d walk on coals for that guy,’ so I thought that was a pretty strong endorsement. I didn’t have any follow-up questions after that.”
But within minutes of the board’s unanimous vote for Bennett, the state’s largest teacher’s union, the Florida Education Association, released a statement saying it was disheartened and disappointed in the choice. Association president Andy Ford says, he didn’t like any of the finalists, and Bennett’s selection shows that Governor Scott and the Board have ignored the wishes of parents and teachers.
“Parents are really not interested in having the same thing continue that’s been going on for the last couple of years," he said.
Ford says the agenda of reform in Florida, based on former governor Jeb Bush’s model, is trying to accomplish too much too quickly. New types of teacher evaluations and standardized tests for students, as well as a push toward school choice that expands charter schools are among the union’s gripes. And, during his interview with the board, Bennett acknowledged these were the same reforms that got him into trouble with the Indiana teacher’s unions.
“I don’t think there’s any question that many people would say that the Indiana teacher unions are probably part of the reason I wasn’t elected because of much of the same blow back," he said.
But Bennett says he’s committed to winning the hearts and minds of Florida’s teachers. He says, they just need to get to know him.
“I am certainly not disappointed working with the Florida teacher unions. I look forward to having the opportunity to sit down with them, exchange ideas, enable them to talk to the person as opposed to the persona that they may have heard about from some of their colleagues to the north. So I’ll be very anxious to have that discussion.”
Bennett says, no matter what, he always keeps children in mind above all else.
"Regardless of where they live, regardless of how much money their parents have, regardless of their race, every child has the chance to live the American dream, just like my children did.”
Bennett’s appointment comes on the heels of some good news about student literacy in Florida. According to a report released this week by the National Center for Education Statistics, a higher percentage of Florida’s fourth graders are reading at an advanced level than anywhere else in the world, except Hong Kong.
For more news updates, follow Jessica Palombo on Twitter @Jessica_WFSU.