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New education commissioner faces skeptical crowd

Florida's new education commissioner, Tony Bennett, sought to hold his own Monday before a skeptical crowd of public school officials attending their annual legislative conference in Tallahassee. Sensing turbulent political times ahead, he said: "I think great solutions come in disagreement."

Bennett was picked by the state Board of Education last month, weeks after losing a re-election bid for state superintendent of schools in Indiana. Speaking to the Florida Association of School Administrators, Bennett called himself "an unapologetic advocate for school choice" who implemented the nation's largest school voucher program in the Hoosier State. "I will tell you I just came off a statewide election and I lost. Pretty well-documented," Bennett said in his first public speech in Tallahassee, speaking in crisp authoritative tones in the House chambers in the state Capitol. "There is nothing you can ask that can offend me."

An Orlando-area school official asked Bennett how he felt about Florida giving money to for-profit charter school companies at the expense of public schools. Bennett's reply is that wealth should not determine where kids attend school. "School choice is a social justice issue, because I believe that impoverished families deserve the same thing I get, and that's the right to put their children in a school that meets their child's needs," he said. He said he believes in accountability, such as requiring standardized testing for an entire school even if one pupil is attending it on a voucher, and that charter schools should comply with the same accountability standards as public schools.

Bennett, a former high school science teacher, basketball coach and principal, said he's "not going to try to bring Indiana to Tallahassee," and sought to reassure his audience by saying Indiana does not have all the answers. "If we did, we wouldn't have a place in the north called South Bend. We wouldn't have a place in the south called North Vernon," he said.

-- Steve Bousquet