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Sunday, Jun 17, 2018
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State out of do-overs

The state Board of Education needs to find a new commissioner who is free of the ideological baggage that dogged Tony Bennett from the time of his arrival in Florida earlier this year. Bennett did the right thing by resigning Thursday. Emails show he had gone to some lengths while commissioner of Indiana's school system to make sure a charter school run by an influential Republican Party donor received an "A" grade rather than the "C" it initially received. He claims his involvement had nothing to do with politics, but it raised enough questions to cast a shadow over his job here in Florida. Bennett was also mired in controversy over his recent manipulation of school grades in Florida to limit the number of failing schools. And he was walking a tightrope over the national Common Core standards being implemented in Florida.
Bennett is a proponent of Common Core, but both Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford were pressuring him to abandon a test being used as a federal standard by some states instituting Common Core and instead have Florida develop its own test. Those kinds of political pressures are the new norm for education commissioners in Florida and across the country, as high-stakes testing and accountability measures are pushed by conservative lawmakers. For parents and teachers to have faith in the system, education commissioners need to be above suspicion that ideology is influencing the way school grades are handed out. The possibility that Bennett let politics influence the grades in Indiana had compromised his integrity here, and he leaves after just seven months on the job and with Common Core preparations far from settled. State Board of Education members appoint the education commissioner, but the decision is a reflection of the governor, who appoints the education board members. With Bennett's departure, Gov. Rick Scott has now worked with three commissioners and two interim commissioners since taking office in 2011. Bennett's predecessor, Gerard Robinson, had his own troubles with school grade results and left after a year amid questions about his competency. Florida is at a crossroads in its education policy. The criteria for assigning school grades has been altered so many times that educators and parents are losing confidence in the system. Common Core, and all of the turmoil associated with its implementation, looms on the horizon. Board of Education members must find someone free of political baggage and with the right leadership skills to thoughtfully continue the state's school accountability effort and navigate the cut-throat political landscape, all while looking out for the best interests of our children. The state can ill afford another mistake.
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