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Tony Bennett's Resignation Causes Fallout In Two States

Stan Jastrzebski

Almost as soon as Tony Bennett stepped down as Florida’s education commissioner Thursday, the fallout began – in two different states. The resignation of a man most people agree did nothing criminal in Florida nonetheless touched off a debate about whether school grades can be trusted in either state Bennett has led.

Tony Bennett exited an elevator before Thursday’s press conference and he was all smiles – looking the part of a politician trying to make a good impression.  He was still trying to make a good impression when he made his way to the podium.

But the smile soon faded from his face and he pronounced himself a distraction.

“And because I don’t believe we should be distracted, I made a decision today, in light of the malicious, unfounded reports out of Indiana…”

And with that, the state was left to look for another commissioner – the third time the position has come open during Rick Scott’s tenure as governor.  It found an interim Friday in public schools chancellor Pam Stewart, who also stepped in when Bennett’s predecessor Gerard Robinson stepped aside.  But as the state board of education was preparing to install Stewart, its members were fretting about what the revolving door in the job means for the state.

“I am disappointed and very disheartened by Tony Bennett’s resignation,” says Board of Education member Barbara Feingold.

Board member Kathleen Shanahan says: “We have a mess on our hands and we have an opportunity on our hands." Shanahan then chided herself and her colleagues for being too reactive to the changes afoot in the state – both in personnel and in educational models.

“We have to be more action-oriented," she says.  "And not that we need to take over the day-to-day of the DOE, but we have been a leading indicator in this country about accountability metrics and performance at a statewide system seeing progress.  And we are at a tipping point of watching that all dissipate.”

Shanahan called for a complete review of the state’s entry into the Common Core testing consortium known as PARCC.  And although several board members praised Bennett’s efforts in his year-and-a-half on the job, they also called for a review of whether there’s any evidence the Sunshine State’s education model may be subject to the grade changes or uncertainty seen in Indiana.

Ironically, as the Republican-appointed state board was worrying about righting the ship and heading for calmer educational seas, so too were Democrats.  On a Friday conference call, a pair of Miami lawmakers pushed for the position to again be chosen by the voters, as it was until about ten years ago.

“Having a constitutional officer elected statewide would add accountability and, in our current context, would add stability to education policy,” says State Representative Jose Javier Rodriguez.  Rodriguez joined with Senator Dwight Bullard to push for legislation in next year’s session which would give voters the chance to weigh in.  Bullard says that would also give the state commissioner a mandate to make change, because they’d serve as an elected official and not an appointee.

“You need, really, a strong, elected, commissioner of education who has, really, the autonomy to right any wrongs that may be put out there,” Bullard says.

But Tony Bennett had that voter mandate and that autonomy in Indiana – and it led to his ouster there and his resignation in Florida.  But Bennett says he’s not about to let his name be sullied.

“I’m going to formally request that the Inspector General of the State of Indiana investigate this issue," Bennett says.  

That way we can put this issue to rest.  Because frankly I am fearless about what they will find.”

Reached by e-mail, Indiana Inspector General David Thomas wouldn’t comment on whether he’ll convene the investigation, saying only information about possible investigations is kept secret.  As for Bennett, he says he doesn’t know what he’ll do next.

“I’m not even going to think about what’s next in terms of moving to Indiana or Florida or anywhere else.  I intend to go to my home and love my kids and love my wife and have fun with my dog.”

For a man who was once a high school sports coach, it was evocative of a statement attributed to many a coach.  Tony Bennett may rightly feel like he never lost a game in his life – he just ran out of time.