By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Cast out by voters in November, Indiana’s departing schools superintendent Tony Bennett is leaving with few regrets about the scope and pace of reforms he championed, but fears they may be undone by politicians worried about the next election.
In an interview earlier this week as the General Assembly was gearing up for its 2013 session, Bennett said legislators who claim “education reform fatigue”as a reason to stall or reverse the sweeping changes he’s put into place are standing on flimsy ground.
“I hope that the focus to do what’s right for kids is far more pressing than the focus to do what’s politically expendient,” said Bennett. “But I think that could get in the way.”
On Monday, Bennett is slated to start his new job as Florida’s education commissioner, an appointed position. He was picked for the job after losing his November bid for re-election as superintendent of public instruction to a school teacher and political newcomer, Democrat Glenda Ritz.
Ritz’s upset win, which made her the first Democrat in 22 years to hold the office, surprised Republicans who won super-majorities in both legislative chambers and hung on to the governor’s office.
But Bennett said he was braced for defeat, knowing he’d become a lightning rod for critics of reform.
“I knew if we were going to do this and do this well, there was a very good chance we would be expendable,” said Bennett. “And I was just fine with that because I felt so strongly in these policies.”
Bennett’s tenure in office was spent advocating and implementing policies passed by the legislature that were aimed at overhauling the state’s K-12 education system.
With what he describes as passion and conviction - and others describe as aggression - he oversaw the expansion of charter schools, the creation of the nation’s largest voucher program, the state’s takeover of failing schools, the evaluation of teachers based on student performance, and the launch of an A-to-F grading system for schools.
In doing so, Bennett became a nationally-recognized face of education reform.
But he also became the target of a well-organized movement of teachers and their sympathizers who were successful, he said, in creating a caricature of him as a “Darth Vader”-like character out to destroy public education.
Bennett said he regrets not doing a better job of communicating his mission, which he saw as raising standards for what constitutes a great education and creating more options for students in poor-performing schools. He set high goals for improving the state’s graduation rates and raising student test scores.
“There was no question that we were very direct, we were very candid, we were very forthright in our appraisal of what we needed to do to improve education,” Bennett said. “I was pretty passionate in delivering the message and I think it allowed a caricature ... I’m not an anti-public school guy. I’m not an anti-teacher guy but [my opponents] were successful because of what we had to say and do to advance this agenda.”
Some of Bennett’s toughest critics disagree.
State Sen. Tim Skinner, a Terre Haute Democrat who vehemently opposed many of the reform measures, said Bennett’s defeat should send a signal to reform-backers in the Statehouse.
“It wasn’t Tony Bennett, it was Tony Bennett’s policies that did him in,” Skinner said. “He needs to accept that because its the God’s truth.”
Skinner, a retired school teacher, said morale in Indiana’s public schools is at all-time low.
“It breaks my heart to walk into public schools these days,” Skinner said. “The atmosphere that made you proud of your school, and happy to go to school, is gone.”
While in the past it was Democrats in the legislature who largely voted against the reforms Bennett put into place, it’s now some Republicans who are questioning whether Bennett went too far. Some GOP lawmakers are pushing to undo Indiana’s adoption of national Common Core Education Standards - something that Bennett championed.
But Bennett is unapologetic as he leaves the Indiana Statehouse, saying he’s not ashamed that he was defeated for fighting for causes he believes in.
“Frankly,” he said, “I think there are far too many people who work in this building - and this probably will be the part that will make a lot of people uncomfortable if you print it - there are far too many people who work in this building who make decisions based on whether they’ll win their election or not and what office they may hold down the road.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.