Fla. board interviews education chief finalists

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - One finalist for Florida education commissioner conceded Tuesday that he can be caustic at times while another said he resigned as Illinois' top school official because of the political climate under a governor who later went to prison.

The remaining finalist acknowledged the federal No Child Left Behind Act that he helped draft and promote as a congressional staffer and U.S. Department of Education official was a compromise that needs to be revised.

The State Board of Education interviewed all three candidates in Tampa, where the panel is scheduled to make a decision Wednesday.

The finalists are outgoing Indiana School Superintendent Tony Bennett, Murray State University President Randy Dunn, who previously had been superintendent in Illinois, and Arlington, Va., consultant Charles Hokanson, who had been a deputy assistant U.S. secretary of education in President George W. Bush's administration.

Bennett, a Republican who lost a bid for re-election last month, said if he has a fault it is being passionate, focused and looking to the end result as the only thing that matters when he was asked about his strengths and weaknesses.

"I do forget that the interpersonal touch, the human touch is so vitally important," Bennett said. "And I would tell you that probably some of my sharpest critics would tell you that sometimes I come off a little impersonal, that I can be a little caustic, and that's not because I'm a mean spirited person."

Bennett said his strong suit is carrying out polices that are best for children. In Indiana those were similar to many that fellow Republicans, starting with former Gov. Jeb Bush, have instituted in Florida such as school grading and accountability and teacher evaluation programs.

Dunn said he took a sabbatical from his position as chairman of the Department of Educational Administration and Higher Education at Southern Illinois University to serve as superintendent on an interim basis. He said he found that job so rewarding that he agreed to stay on permanently but resigned in 2006 to accept the presidency at Murray State in neighboring Kentucky.

"One of the things that was particularly challenging in Illinois at the time was the political climate," Dunn said. "It was not a good environment politically to be working in."

Dunn was referring to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who years later was removed from office and imprisoned on multiple corruption charges including trying to sell President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.

Hokanson, a lawyer and policy specialist rather than educator, worked on No Child Left Behind while a staffer for now-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

"There are amazing strengths to that piece of legislation," Hokanson said. "It was the first time that the federal government was able to really put in some levels of accountability for the billions of federal dollars that they had been spending for decades and not seeing results."

Hokanson, however, blamed Congress and Obama for failing to make needed changes in the law that is well past its planned renewal date.

Bennett and Dunn both stressed that they see the commissioner's role as implementing rather than setting policy, which they said is the job of the board, Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.

In Tallahassee, Scott said he wants a commissioner who would carry out his agenda including adequate funding, accountability, treating teachers right and not teaching to standardized tests.

"I want someone who I can work with who believes in what I'm doing," Scott said.

The new commissioner will replace Gerard Robinson who resigned in August after only about a year on the job. He cited separation from his family in Virginia where he previously had been secretary of education.

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