Yesterday’s live feed of the Florida state board interviews with candidates for education commissioner provided me the first opportunity to see board members unplugged and without the protection of prepared press releases, sound bites or filtered quotes to reporters. Here are some take-aways.
* I actually came away liking Charles Hokansons Jr. Although clearly in the camp of the “privatization choicers” (It was clear those are the type of candidates this board would want to interview) the former George W. Bush-era DOE official was measured and thoughtful. A bit on the wonkish side, Hokansons was the anti-Tony Bennett, approachable and a consensus builder. And he displayed a bit of moxie by appearing to take a swing at Bennett’s swash-buckling, confrontational style by making the case that he was the opposite.
* Unfortunately, the FDOE’s link to the feed was lost before the last candidate, current Murray State University president Randy Dunn, was interviewed. I encourage readers to read this report by Tampa Bay Times reporters Tia Mitchell and Shelley Rossetter.
* Board member Barbara Feingold proved to have a keen interest in special needs, early ed and gifted children – a welcome voice from such a politically charged entity. Her focus on these issues leads me to believe that Rick Scott chose well with this appointment.
* I almost wish that Tony Bennett’s interview yesterday was an introductory press conference for a big college coaching job. Central casting could have sent Bennett, but this isn’t the SEC. Bennett’s a smart guy, but more Bobby Knight than Bill Clinton. Florida begs for the later right now. His dismissal of “teaching to the test” concerns with the analogy of drilling at home for spelling tests was an eye-roller.
* Former Jeb Bush chief of staff, Kathleen Shanahan referred to her former boss as “Jeb” yesterday. She wished aloud that yesterday’s news of the success of Florida fourth graders on a reading test would serve as vindication for the reforms that began under, um, Jeb. Board chairman Gary Chartrand actually gaveled open the meeting with this news. Such emphasis on results from one fourth grade test indicates just how desperate some board members are to have the state’s test-dominated education system accepted. Nevermind what it says about their fixation on test results.
* Shanahan complained about Florida’s “anti-testing culture” and that it had been so effective that it had become “conventional wisdom” among students, teachers and parents. This may have been the most stunning revelation of the day. It means that opposition from parents and local school boards is working. The bad news is that the board – like the previous education commissioner and the current candidates – still feel that people just don’t know what’s good for them.
* Roberto Martinez made two hyper-partisan remarks about teacher unions during the meeting. In doing so, he showed why his term shouldn’t be extended. Shanahan also bemoaned how “the teacher unions” oppose us, an obvious reflection of the group think that exists within Jeb Bush’s inner circle. If Florida’s teacher unions really had any power in policy-making, Florida’s chaotic multiple accountability systems wouldn’t be sucking all the oxygen out of the air. The board’s airy talk of involving stakeholders is lip service. To actually do so, would be a 180. Tony Bennett certainly isn’t the education commissioner for that after once telling concerned teachers not to bother with complaining about his policies as “that train has left the station.”
*Sally Bradshaw might be the most influential board member. Her recent appointment to a republican committee to look into last month’s defeat of Mitt Romney is indicative of her place in powerful circles. It was Bradshaw who asked Bennett about his strengths and weaknesses. Was this a signal that Bennett wasn’t a sure bet and that the board – save absolute Bush loyalists in Shanahan, Martinez and Dr. A.K Desai – had serious concerns about him?
Yesterday’s news that parent groups were united in opposing these “last-minute political applicants” indicates that they know the selection still needs Rick Scott’s blessing.