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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