Florida limits vouchers, which let students attend private schools at public expense, to disabled and low-income children. Indiana's is open to low- and middle-income students.

Florida, through its consulting firm, approached Bennett to apply for the education commissioner's job in 2011 after Gov. Rick Scott pressured Eric Smith to resign. Bennett declined. Smith now is executive director of Chiefs for Change.

The state board hired another Chiefs for Change member, Gerard Robinson, but he resigned last summer after about a year on the job, citing separation from his family in Virginia, where he had been secretary of education.

Bennett was selected for the job in December. He said he has spoken with Scott several times since and that the governor stressed he wants public schools to be a primary driver of economic development by preparing students for jobs and college.

Bennett - who has bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in education - was a teacher, coach and principal who worked through the administrative ranks to school superintendent in Clarksville, Ind., before running for state office in 2008, according to his application for the Florida job. Bennett said before 2008, he had little involvement in politics, but friends urged him to run for state superintendent when the incumbent decided not to seek re-election.

During his job interview with Florida's board, Bennett acknowledged that he can be caustic and impersonal and that opposition from the teacher's unions was a big reason he was defeated in Indiana.

Bennett also stressed that he attempted to seek input from teachers, administrators and community members with town hall meetings across Indiana, though union leaders there called them a sham. Bennett said he plans to hold meetings in Florida, too.

"We have to reach out and talk about education reform so that it resonates with the average Floridian and the average Hoosier," Bennett said. "Our greatest lesson and challenge is how do we message the need to improve education without the risk of our opponents painting us as something we are not."