Gov. Rick Scott has been silent on the scandal engulfing his education commissioner. He declined two opportunities to speak publicly on the matter Tuesday, saying he had not read the AP report.
Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers later said Bennett was “clearly committed to making Florida’s education system the best in the nation.”
But with the 2014 governor’s race on the horizon, observers say Scott has a tough decision to make.
“If the governor wants to appeal to moderates across the state, he has to get rid of [Bennett],” said Brian Peterson, a professor at Florida International University and editor of the Miami Education Review online newsletter. “If he doesn’t, the message is that the game is rigged, and that public schools are going to be treated from charter schools.”
On Tuesday, Bennett said he had received “really pretty strong support” from Scott’s office and several lawmakers, as well as members of the state Board of Education. The seven-person board has the power to hire and fire education commissioners, but its members are appointed by the governor.
Bennett said the AP report would not impair his ability to serve as Florida’s top education official.
“It has no bearing whatsoever,” he said.Even before the AP story broke, Bennett had faced criticism over policy changes regarding how to grade schools as well as his support of Common Core standards.
Bennett has already had challenges in his short tenure. Earlier this summer, he urged the board of education to preserve a “safety net” to protect schools from dropping more than one letter grade in light of changes to the grading formula. The board approved his recommendation, but members on both sides of the debate conceded that school grades had become less meaningful. One member suggested abandoning the grades entirely. State Board of Education member John Colon said Bennett’s woes in Indiana, while unfortunate if true, would not influence his views of the commissioner’s role in Florida.
“I’m judging Commissioner Bennett on what he’s doing, not what I’m hearing,” said Colon, a Sarasota financial adviser who joined the board after Bennett was appointed. “I have complete confidence in Commissioner Bennett.”
Board member Kathleen Shanahan said she, too, would continue to support Bennett.
But Rick Hess, an education policy scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said Bennett might not get full-throated support from the Republican Party leaders who once considered him a top education reformer.
The reason? Bennett has championed the Common Core State Standards, a new national curriculum that will be deployed in Florida schools over the next two years. Tea Party groups vehemently oppose the concept.
The philosophical rift, Hess said, “has created distrust among the Republican base and the legislative leadership in Florida.”
“It’s not at all clear that they’re going to want to stand behind Bennett,” he said. “More likely, they’re going to look for an opportunity to push out Bennett in favor of a state chief who is not such a supporter of the Common Core.”