Just off his defeat at the ballot box in a red state, Tony Bennett waited until the last second to throw his hat in the ring for Florida’s education commissioner post. Why it took so long is anyone’s guess and I won’t be speculating on that here. But Bennett’s entry into the picture will be a showdown between current governor Rick Scott and former governor Jeb Bush. Lets explore why.
Rick Scott completely bought into the school reform model that Bush and others were selling when he became governor. He walked the talk and showed Waiting for Superman to legislators during his transition. Controversial reform icon Michelle Rhee co-chaired his education transition team with Bush’s top operative Patricia Levesque. Three top charter school executives joined them in crafting a legislative plan that probable gave Bush a Chris Mathews-like thrill up his leg. But the Rick Scott who took office in January 2011 is not the Rick Scott who has been tarveling on Bush Way as governor for two years.
For starters, he’s been embarrassed a number of times. He signed the Rhee inspired SB736 at the Jacksonville KIPP charter school belonging to Gary Chartrand, who of all things now, is the chairman of the State Board of Education. A few short months later it was learned that Chartrand’s school received an F. The spring brought the FCAT Writes and school grades fiasco that unmasked the incompetence of the FDOE and highlighted the folly of using kid’s test scores in such a sweeping manner. Meanwhile, over 20 school boards from across the state passed resolutions against high stakes tests. All the while the last ed commish, one of Bush’s vaunted Chiefs for Change, Gerard Robinson, was proving not to be up to the job.
Amid the testing and school grade meltdowns, which fairly couldn’t be blamed on Robinson as they were Bush=driven initiatives – Robinson proved to be divisive and gaffe-prone. He sealed his own fate in a late speech to state school board members. In response to the state association looking to pass its own resolution against high-stakes tests (it wasn’t certain at the time they would do so) Robinson essentially told the room full of elected board members that they would do as they’re told.
Perhaps Jeb Bush likes such bully pulpit rhetoric. He famously told StateImpact reporter John O’Connor earlier this year that he “didn’t care” about criticism. Make no mistake, Tony Bennett would be Gerard Robinson hyped up on meth. Bennett once compared Indiana’s education funding apparatus to the BP oil spill. His application will undergo more press scrutiny because as a candidate for elected office, he received donations from many of the same corporations from which Florida already does business.
Does Scott want this sort of education commissioner? Does Florida need a bomb-thrower or an administrator? Bennett is certainly more of the former, but the recent collapse of Florida’s accountability system and continued dysfunction at the FDOE begs for the later. The policies of which Bennett advocated for are already in place here and policy-making is still done by Levesque and ALEC. He’d be reduced to Baghdad Bob status - a gig for which he is well suited. And finally, does Scott want another Bush Chief for Change and someone more loyal to the Bush legacy and agenda than he would be to the schools and children of the state?
The political charade of this being a state board decision will fade away and everybody will know this is Scott’s call. Scott was able to generate Eric Smith ouster in favor of Robinson. While Bush continues his corporate financed education tour all over the country, Scott has to govern. He doesn’t want any more drama from the FDOE that Bennett would surely provide.
So who will win the political battle? Can Scott survive the hit that would come if it becomes apparent that Bush still runs the place?