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Three finalists for state education commissioner make their pitches in Tampa

TAMPA — After hearing from all three finalists for the education commissioner job, Florida's Board of Education is expected to make its choice today.

Tony Bennett, Randy Dunn and Charles Hokanson Jr. each spent roughly an hour Tuesday outlining their education philosophies and work experience in a meeting at Tampa's airport hotel. They also faced questions about their ability to manage large organizations and work with the governor and board — issues that plagued former Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, who resigned abruptly in July after only a year.

After the interviews, board chairman Gary Chartrand wouldn't say which of the finalists was his favorite.

"All three candidates are high quality and each had their strengths and weaknesses," he said. "I will say that I do think our next education commissioner is among the three."

It is the board's second education commissioner search since Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2010.

The three finalists surfaced after the Board of Education decided in September to extend the application deadline by two months. Many felt the initial pool of candidates was lackluster.

Hokanson worked in President George W. Bush's administration and is the former president of the Alliance for School Choice. He said his background gives him experience and skills that would serve Florida well as the state continues to implement new standards and testing requirements.

"In my 20-year career that I've mainly spent in education reform, it has prepared me to take a bold and firm stance on advancing those policies," Hokanson said.

In November, Bennett lost his bid to be re-elected as Indiana's superintendent of public instruction. He was the highest-profile applicant for the Florida job and has been identified as the frontrunner.

Bennett sounded a lot like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during his interview. He said criticism about "teaching to the test" was misguided, and he acknowledged a poor record with unions while saying he is open to working directly with educators and other stakeholders.

"You can't govern from Tallahassee in Florida," he said. "You have to go out and meet, you have to go out and listen, you have to go out and exchange ideas."

Dunn said the Florida Department of Education's greatest need right now is to provide help to schools, teachers and districts so that reforms can truly take hold. He called himself an implementer and said the governor, Board of Education and lawmakers should set the agenda.

That made him sound a lot like former state Education Commissioner Eric Smith, who was known as a consensus-builder.

"If I have a talent organizationally, it's to be a fixer," Dunn said. "To untie those knots, to get those lines separated out so the direction is clear."

Parent leaders from across Florida have expressed concern about all three finalists, but especially about Bennett. They say the candidates are inclined toward an "extreme reform agenda" that is bad for Florida children.

Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813)661-2442.

Three finalists for state education commissioner make their pitches in Tampa 12/11/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 10:50pm]
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