Before he was voted out of the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Indiana -- and well before he was appointed Florida Commissioner of Education -- Tony Bennett pushed for a controversial package of education initiatives that brought Indiana to the forefront of a national conversation about how to transform public schools.
And it all began with a restaurant conversation between Bennett and Indiana Board of Education member Todd Huston, who was urging him to run for superintendent.
"The thing about Tony is he's completely genuine," Huston said. "He says what he's going to do, and he goes and does it. I recognize sometimes that will rankle people, but in truth we need more people like that."
Bennett went on to win the election. For the next four years, he pushed for a sweeping overhaul of Indiana schools. He called it the most fulfilling job he's ever had.
Bennett wonders, "What other state school chief in the history of the country has had the opportunity to serve with a governor in his second term with an approval rating of almost 70 percent who made education reform a priority and said, go forth, craft, execute and implement the most bold education reform agenda in the United States?"
During Bennett's tenure he signed Indiana up for the Common Core, a set of new academic standards adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. He pushed for a third grade reading test. He supported teacher evaluations, merit pay and one of the most expansive school vouchers laws in the country. He applied for a waiver to replace the federal No Child Left Behind law in Indiana with an A-F accountability system. The state took over five struggling schools.
Indiana University education professor Ashlyn Nelson describes Bennett as "bullish."
"He had a very clear agenda," he recalls. "He wanted to reduce achievement gaps among children and he wanted to improve achievement overall for Indiana students, but there was substantial disagreement about the mechanisms he used in order to achieve that change."
Bennett eventually lost his re-election bid. But just one month after Indiana voters rejected his brand of education overhaul, the Florida Board of Education unanimously selected Bennett to run Florida's schools. Board chairman Gary Chartrand told a story about sitting next to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels at a conference.
"And I asked him about Tony Bennett, and his comment was, 'I'd walk on coals for that guy.' So I thought that was a pretty strong endorsement. I didn't have any follow-up questions after that."
One of Bennett's last acts as Indiana's superintendent was overseeing the passage of controversial new teacher licensing requirements. But he says he doesn't feel guilty saddling his successor with a policy she strongly opposes.