Commissioner may reorganize Dept. of Education


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Education Commissioner Tony Bennett is mulling a reorganization of the state Department of Education, but the project has been slowed by laws that spell out the responsibilities of some positions at the agency.

It's not clear how wide-ranging Bennett's plans for the department are, in part because the commissioner admitted to being surprised by the legal hurdles to overhauling the agency. But Bennett wants the State Board of Education to sign off on the plan at its September meeting, clearing the way for the changes to begin by October or November.

It would put the new commissioner's mark on the department as he looks to implement goals like the "90-60-90-90" plan, which calls for 90 percent of students to test at grade level, 60 percent of students to gain college credit from Advanced Placement or other courses or get an industry certification, 90 percent to graduate from high school in four years and 90 percent to be successful in college or a career after they leave.

Bennett told members of the board during a meeting in Jacksonivlle on Tuesday that his goals for the agency were to prepare the department to implement the nationwide "Common Core" standards for schools and the state's performance-pay law, in addition to the "90-60-90-90" targets.

He also suggested the agency that emerges could be leaner.

"The more we can shift resources to drive dollars to schools and to classrooms, the better we are," he said. "And that is really my focus here."

One problem has already cropped up and complicated Bennett's initial plans.

"One of the things I didn't realize when I came here was that we have a lot of positions in the Florida Department of Education that are outlined in statute," said Bennett, who came to Florida from Indiana.

For example, Bennett said, positions that include deputy commissioners and chancellors are part of the law, as are some of those positions' responsibilities. That could limit his ability to shake up the organization of the agency, at least in the short term.

Some board members, though, questioned whether that should be an obstacle. Instead, board member John Padget said, the department should ask the Legislature to change the law if necessary.

"I don't think that we should take an existing statute as a barrier," Padget said.

Bennett said he wants to try to get at least some of the reorganization done before the legislative session.

At least one board member voiced caution about the possibility that the plans could become a distraction, particularly with the state facing the tall task of getting the Common Core standards into place in the face of some public resistance.

"Tallahassee's a small town," said board member Kathleen Shanahan. "And reorganization is a big word, because people's lives are impacted."