Education Commissioner Tony Bennett floats changes to teacher performance law

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE  - New Education Commissioner Tony Bennett suggested Wednesday that changes to the state's controversial law tying teacher pay and evaluations to student performance could be coming, saying Gov. Rick Scott had asked him to look into how the law will be implemented.

Speaking to the Senate Education Committee about the future of education in Florida, Bennett mused aloud that the law might need to be "tweaked" in order for the state to effectively implement it.

"And I think everything should be on the table around that discussion," Bennett said. " ... But we want to make sure that we provide the flexibility necessary to implement a law with fidelity, because the law is really not useful if it's not well-implemented."

Bennett also raised other avenues for easing concerns over the implementation of the law, including potential changes to how the Department of Education is putting the new standards into place and helping local districts make sure they can handle the new rules.

The new commissioner, who came to Florida after losing an election in Indiana in the wake of an aggressive reform agenda, also said all schools that receive state funding should be subject to the same accountability system. Bennett said all schools were graded the same way in Indiana, though he pointed out that there are differences between the voucher systems in Indiana and Florida.

"I do believe that schools that receive state funds should be held accountable, and I believe that that accountability should be just as transparent as we expect from our traditional public schools," Bennett said.

Bennett told reporters after the meeting that he was expressing a personal position and didn't know if Scott would formally float the proposal. The governor has made similar statements in the past, though.

Senate Education Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz, said following the meeting that he was open to changes in the implementation of the student performance law. Legg said he wanted to make sure that "we're evaluating teachers and rewarding those that are doing well, not inundating them with paperwork and documentation. And that's the part that I'm definitely interested in looking at."

He was more guarded about bringing all schools that receive state funding under the accountability system, saying the state needed to be cautious as it begins to transition to the "common core standards," a national model for curriculum.

"What you don't want to do is you don't want to put someone into moving parts," he said.

Legg also said he was "a little disappointed" that Scott didn't show up to the meeting to explain his agenda, and that Bennett wasn't ready to fully describe the governor's plan when that didn't happen.

"I'm anxiously waiting to see some stuff in writing. ... I'm a black-and-white kind of non-emotional, analytical person," he told Bennett during the meeting.

Speaking with reporters afterward, Legg suggested that Scott's office had asked for the governor to have an opportunity to speak.

"I'm very understanding that the governor's a very, very busy man, but they requested some committee time to kind of present their agenda," he said.

Scott attended a Cabinet meeting that started shortly after the committee meeting began and later flew to Orange County to propose a pay raise for teachers.

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