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Commissioner's Scandal Could be Leverage in Florida Education Battle


Education Commissioner Tony Bennett may survive a charter school scandal from his time in Indiana. After all, this is Florida, where the bar for ethics in public office is set so low it's usually resting on the ground. However, considering the fact that the controlling party is at internal odds regarding the implementation of Common Core and PARRC, it remains to be seen whether Bennett's diminished status will leave him and a campaigning governor with enough juice to fend off a House Speaker and Senate President who'd like to take a different direction. 

It appears that Bennett and his staff reworked Indiana’s school grading system once it became known that a political heavyweight’s charter school was going to receive a “C.” Christel DeHaan gave millions to Republican politicians including $130,000 to Bennett (Indiana’s equivalent to our Ed Commissioner is an elected post). Other schools benefitted from the changes, but the emails make it pretty clear that it was for the benefit of DeHaan’s Christel House that such changes were made. The school was going to get an A, end of story. 

Bennett’s predicament is just one piece of a much bigger picture regarding education reform, but it could have a scale-tipping impact. As we speak, a considerable amount of disagreement is being had among Florida Republicans concerning new common core standards and the implementation of a replacement assessment for the FCAT.

In 2010, the Florida-based Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) was one of two groups nationally that had been selected as recipients for funding to develop new and more uniformed methods of determining student achievement. Backed by $158 million in federal grant money, the 26-state program was an important part of implementing broad common core standards across the United States.

Ironically, common core is an essentially conservative notion, which has gathered support from moderate liberals as well. One of its biggest proponents is former governor Jeb Bush, who has made conservative education reform his chief issue since leaving office. He championed Bennett for the Florida post and has stood by him through the scandal. 

Governor Scott, who’s been pretty much silent, is a harder read. Scott’s stance on education was somewhat vague when he ran, consisting mostly of generic, far-right talking points signaling support for vouchers, merit pay and charter school expansion (all Bush favorites). However, Republicans at the state level have recently made common core a rallying point against liberal big government. 

State-level Republicans have lined up to support a pull-out from PARCC, based mostly on regarding cost and test-taking time. Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford sent Bennett a letter urging him to do just that and one can only imagine they see their chances as having improved with Bennett’s diminished standing. 

The commissioner needs cover, as reformers on the left call for his resignation and he has to wonder how much support he’ll get from a governor coming up on reelection – especially one who does not have the full support of the party establishment and can nary afford to have them upstage him with the Tea Party crowd which was so instrumental in the thin coalition that led to his narrow victory in 2010.

The anti-Common Core/PARCC group has also found an ally in Senator Marco Rubio, who needs to bone-up his own Tea Party cred after taking a beating on immigration reform. Rubio, once a Jeb Bush stalwart on education, suddenly insists that he’s all for accountability, but that standards must be maintained at the state level, rather than in Washington.

Despite the fact that Florida isn’t exactly considered an education state, it remains an important player in the big picture. Among states dominated by Republican legislatures, the sunshine state has been progressive in implementing those aforementioned flashpoint issues – merit pay, charter and voucher expansion, etc. In short and just like most other issues, our state government has been for everything that groups like ALEC and Freedomworks like, which until the rubber met the road on federal standards has also been in line with Bush’s agenda.

If legislators can engineer a jump ship on PARCC, the ensuing wave might sink the entire vessel, dealing a major blow to common core. Still, the biggest loser in that scenario would be Bush and given the fact that he’s long been considered the most powerful influence on Florida’s education policy – as well as that of the RNC – that would be quite surprising. Then again, this is politics and we’re talking about an ideological issue with billions of dollars at stake, so we might want to banish that word from the conversation. 

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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