Citing what he called “malicious, unfounded” and “politically motivated” attacks stemming from his time as Indiana’s elected state education superintendent, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned Thursday.
Bennett said remaining in the office he has held since December would only distract the state from pursuing school improvement plans backed by Gov. Rick Scott and the state Board of Education. His resignation is effective immediately.
“Governor Scott has been incredibly supportive and encouraged me to continue in my position,” Bennett said during a news conference in Tallahassee.
But he said he decided to step aside to avoid hurting Scott’s agenda.
“Every minute we spend defending your commissioner is a minute we waste,” he said. “We don’t have that time to waste.”
Bennett’s resignation came at the end of a week that started Monday, with the publication of an Associated Press report from Indiana that showed he took a particular interest in a charter school there run by a wealthy Republican donor.
According to the Associated Press account, the Christel House Academy in Indianapolis had its state grade changed from a C to an A it didn’t merit because of Bennett’s intervention when he was superintendent of public instruction.
At Thursday’s news conference, Bennett maintained that he’d done nothing wrong in Indiana. The measures he took, he said, were intended to correct an “anomaly” in the grading system that would have resulted in 13 charter schools – not just one – getting poor grades they didn’t deserve.
He said he will formally request an investigation by the Indiana Inspector General’s Office into his performance in the job he held from his election in 2008 until he lost re-election in November 2012.
“Frankly, I am fearless about what they will find,” he said.
Scott’s critics, including Democratic lawmakers and the Florida Education Association, which has clashed repeatedly with Scott since he took office in 2011 over education reforms and teacher pay issues, had a much harsher assessment of Scott’s third education commissioner and the governor’s overall approach to education.
On Wednesday, three influential Democrats, Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa and Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, called for Bennett’s resignation over the Indiana reports.
“You should not have people who are glaringly political in those types of positions,” Pafford said, according to the News Service of Florida.
Bennett supporters, however, called his service invaluable.
“Tony demonstrated great leadership transitioning Florida to new state standards – and he worked tirelessly during his tenure to provide students and teachers with the tools they needed to succeed,” Florida Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand said in a statemeent.
“I thank him for his hard work and the support that he and Governor Scott have provided to educators and students across the state.”
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