Another education commissioner resigns
Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned Thursday, three days after news broke that he had changed the grade of a donor's charter school while Indiana's education chief.
Bennett's abrupt departure sparked criticism that his actions hurt the credibility of Florida's school-accountability system. Some called for reforms, while others praised Bennett and were sad to see him go. "It's not fair to the children of Florida that I continue as commissioner and deal with the distraction," Bennett said during a news conference in Tallahassee. "I end my tenure with my head held high." According to emails sent last year while Bennett headed Indiana's public-education system, he pushed top staffers to raise from a "C" to an "A" the grade of Christel House, an Indianapolis charter school run by a Bennett friend and campaign donor. The Associated Press first reported on the emails Monday. "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal. The grade was raised by changing the way high-school scores are counted in schools without a senior class. On Thursday, Bennett called those reports "malicious and unfounded," though he did not deny acting on the school's behalf or apologize for his actions. He said earlier this week that he did the right thing by acting on constituent concerns. But a report in The Indianapolis Star on Thursday said Bennett had turned down calls by the Indianapolis schools superintendent a year before to make a similar change on behalf of two noncharter schools. According to the story, Bennett dismissed the superintendent's concerns. Two of the affected high schools were then taken over by the state. State Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said he respects Bennett and thinks he made the right decision by resigning. "We cannot jeopardize the tremendous advancements Florida has made over the past 15 years," Simmons said. As soon as word began to spread that Bennett would step down, the name of Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins began to crop up as a possible replacement. She would not comment Thursday, but Jenkins is well-known in state education circles and is liked by Gov. Rick Scott. Sources said in June that she was on Scott's short list to be the next lieutenant governor. "I am very hopeful that the State Board will swiftly stabilize the Department of Education as Florida heads into a period of significant transitions for public education," Jenkins said. Simmons said Jenkins could provide that type of stability. The previous education commissioner, Gerard Robinson, resigned abruptly one year ago after facing criticism from local educators about the state's accountability system. But Robinson said he was leaving to be with his family in Virginia. "I think Barbara Jenkins is an excellent candidate for that position," Simmons said. "We'd hate to lose her, but everyone in the state would get the advantage of her abilities." After Bennett resigned, several groups began to call for a return to an elected education commissioner. "It's very sad that Indiana voters had the opportunity to vote him out, but Florida voters don't have the opportunity to remove such a critical position and put in the person that we want through the voting process," said Kathleen Oropeza, a co-founder of the Orlando-based pro-education group Fund Education Now. Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, said the resignation is proof that the state's school-reform and accountability policies are "incoherent and unsound." "These policies have no value advancing education in this state and have lost the public's trust," Ford said Thursday. "It's past time that we include teachers, parents and administrators in developing solutions, not just listen to the 'reformers' who have an approach that has been a disaster for public education in Florida."
http://www.thefloridacurrent.com/article.cfm?id=33888487 (Andy Ford quoted)
http://ap.staugustine.com/pstories/state/fl/20130802/1164701459.shtml (Andy Ford quoted)
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/education/fl-florida-tony-bennett-resigns-2-20130801,0,6227028.story (Andy Ford, Sharon Glickman and Debra Wilhelm quoted)
http://www.news-press.com/article/20130802/NEWS0104/308020034/Commissioner-Bennett-s-resignation-rocks-Florida-education-system (Donna Mutzenard quoted)
Turnover may make Florida’s education chief job a tough sell (Sharon Glickman quoted)
Jeb Bush may be the biggest loser in the Bennett resignation
Don't fix the grades, fix the system
Tony Bennett, Florida’s education commissioner, got run out of his job for secret nefarious doings while he was in Indiana, not the public nefarious doings he led on the job here. The aims of both were the same: To cook the school-grades books to limit political embarrassment. I come not to praise Tony Bennett, nor to bury him. Rather, I’m here to insist that Florida’s third education commissioner in three years and his ham-handed shenanigans in Indiana and officially sanctioned mischief in Florida are merely sideshows to the baseline problem. To wit: School grades are a sham. Standardized testing is awful. Education accountability is little more than an appeal to our worst emotional responses and a surrogate battle between liberals and conservatives, business interests and organized labor, with kids in the crossfire. In July, for the second year in a row, Florida’s State Board of Education agreed to soften the blow of more stringent standardized-test grading. No school would be allowed to drop more than a single grade. Nothing sums up the board’s agreement as well as the repeated argument made by Miami-Dade’s Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who said the safety net was required because of the “unanticipated multivariate impacts” of the grade standards. That cumbersome phrase can better be translated as, “Whoa, my kid’s school got a C!” That’s true for me. Officially, my son’s school got a B, but it benefited from the unanticipated-multivariate-impact fix sanctioned by the Board of Education and didn’t fall to the C the numbers said it deserved. While far from an expert, I like to think I know quite a bit about the advantages and pitfalls of the state’s testing and how it all goes into a black box and spits out school and district grades. Even with that knowledge — understanding that should and does result in a healthy skepticism of the whole shebang — I still had the same visceral reaction to that C, the precise response hoped for by the school-accountability crowd, even though I should know better. That is to say: “Put my taxpayer dollars to better use, you lazy teachers and incompetent administrators.” However, some all-but-arbitrary grade put out by the education-industrial complex does nothing to change my opinion of the teachers who have taught my son, nor how I think about the education he’s getting. I know what kind of education he’s getting. I am the very best judge of that.
Florida long has allowed political donations to influence education policy, the very allegation that forced Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to quit Thursday. Voucher advocate John Kirtley got the state Republican Party’s attention more than a decade ago with a $100,000 donation. Kirtley, with enthusiastic support from Jeb Bush, since has spearheaded the ever-expanding corporate voucher program. Participating schools -- many of them private religious schools -- are not subject to the same accountability as public schools. The Legislature made the program possible by giving corporations a dollar-for-dollar tax break for money they donate to the scholarship fund. More recently, for-profit charter schools have gotten into the political act in a big way, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Florida candidates in the 2011-12 election cycle. The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott have responded by making it easier to establish and expand charter schools and by giving charters all of the dwindling trust fund for school construction, a gift worth more than $100 million. … Bennett’s grade-rigging record in Florida is more egalitarian and on a much grander scale. No public school was allowed to fall more than one letter grade in results released a week ago. Bennett is not primarily to blame for Florida’s politically contaminated school grading system. That onus falls on Bush, who was a major Bennett booster, and Bush’s education policy machine, headed by one of Bennett’s most vocal defenders. Indiana voters ousted Bennett last fall because of his politics — support for vouchers, school grades and high-stakes testing. Florida’s Board of Education hired him on the rebound in December for the same reasons. The same politics were behind the board’s decision in June 2011 to hire Gerard Robinson, who barely lasted a year and quit after a previous school-grading fiasco. Three state board of education members, Gary Chartrand, John Padget and Kathleen Shanahan, made both bad hires. Given that record, perhaps they should follow Bennett. In quitting, Bennett said he didn’t want to become a distraction. The real distraction remains the politically motivated attack on public education. For that to change, the politicians at the top must change.
Ultimately, Gov. Rick Scott is responsible for the lack of trust in the direction of public education in Florida. He campaigned as though teachers and public schools were the enemy, and he signed state budgets into law that slashed spending on public education. Then he pushed to restore more than $1 billion in spending and give teacher raises this year as his job approval ratings continued to plummet. The state of public education in Florida will be a major issue in next year's governor's race, and former Gov. Jeb Bush still has more influence over the Legislature and the Board of Education than Scott on that subject.
Honest brokers would admit the current, test-obsessed system isn't working. But the reformers actually claimed the higher failure rates were fine and dandy -- simply the result of higher standards. It's a fascinating little world these reformers have created for themselves -- one where they claim success whether scores rise or fall.
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