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Thursday, August 1, 2013

The biggest loser in the Bennett scandal? Jeb Bush!

From the Washington Post, by Valerie Strauss

Now this gives new meaning to Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change school reform group.

Tony Bennett, founding Chiefs member, just resigned as Florida’s superintendent of public schools amid a scandal about his actions when he was Indiana’s schools chief. He was forced out ofthat job late last year by Indiana voters but then was scooped up by the Bush-dominated Board of Education in Florida, where he started as superintendent in January.

In less than a year, Bennett has been ousted from two leading education positions. The first time was by voters disgruntled with his standardized test-based school reform program, which had originally been implemented in Florida under Jeb Bush when he was governor from 1999-2007.

Bennett was a protege of Bush, who became a national school reform leader in recent years through two Florida-based foundations he established  to push his school reform model, which includes vouchers, charter schools and an A-F system to grade schools largely based on test scores.

It was that A-F school grading system in Indiana that led to Bennett’s resignation; the Associated Press published a story about e-mails detailing how Bennett pushed his staff to change the grade of a favored charter school from a “C” to an “A.” Bennett denied he tried to help the school, run by a Republican donor, but the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, apparently didn’t believe him, or didn’t want to deal with the scandal, because he “accepted” Bennett’s resignation on Thursday.

Bennett was a founding member of and the current chair of Chiefs for Change, a group of former and current state superintendents that Bush assembled to advance his brand of corporate-influenced school reform. 

Indiana (and other states) use the A-F school grading system for several reasons, including determining how much money schools receive and which schools should be taken over by the state because of poor performance. Florida, coincidentally  voted to change its own A-F school grading system in July in a move labeled as nothing short of a “scam” by critics: The Florida Board of Education became worried that as many as one-third of public schools would see plummeting grades as a result of new and supposedly higher standards resulting in lower student test scores, so it decided that no matter what the test scores are, no school can drop more than one letter grade in a single year.

What Bennett did in Indiana and the Board of Education did in Florida show how little the rules matter to some school reformers who wrap themselves in the mantle of “accountability for all” but try to escape it themselves. In both Indiana and Florida, the Bush-inspired A-F school grading system had to be changed to keep corporate-influenced school reform from collapsing under the weight of its own illogic, revealing the reform model as bankrupt.

But there’s more to this story than the fall of Tony Bennett in Florida.

For one thing, it shows continuous change in Florida in regard to public education under Scott; there have been five education commissioners and interim commissioners in Scott’s 31-month tenure in office. Change can be a good thing, but it can also wreak havoc. Why can’t Scott keep a commissioner? Said Nan Rich, a Democrat and former Florida Senate minority leader who is running for governor: “How can we hold students, teachers and schools accountable if the system’s leadership keeps changing? We need to stop the revolving door of leaders.” She makes a good point.

The ousting of Bennett in Florida underscores a growing schism among Florida Republicans over the future of school reform. That split became clear last month when the state’s top Republican lawmakers asked Bennett to pull out of a group of states designing high-stakes standardized tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards and not to accept those assessments as a replacement for the state’s current exams. 

Bennett has been a big Common Core supporter, as well as a leading member of one of the two consortia designing the Core-aligned exams. Bush is a big Core supporter, too, but a growing number of Florida Republicans aren’t, including Sen. Marco Rubio.

As a result, perhaps the bigger loser in the Bennett resignation is Jeb Bush, who had  been building a national reputation on his school reform efforts. The end of the Tony Bennett era in Florida education is also part of the decline of the influence Bush has held on Florida education policy in recent years.

It has been an open question as to whether Bush would use his education record as a key part of a 2016 presidential run. As more and more of the Bush reform agenda comes under scrutiny, that education record is likely to be too tarnished for that use.

What, after all, does it say for Bush’s national reform agenda if the former governor can’t influence education policy in the state in which he started it all?

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