By Steve Gunn
INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana school Superintendent Tony Bennett may not be a household name, but for many people involved in the national school reform movement he’s nothing less than a superhero.
Now he’s running for a second four-year term, and Indiana voters will have the chance to register their opinions on his performance in Tuesday’s general election.
“This is definitely being watched nationally as a referendum on reform,” Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, recently told the Associated Press. “If Tony Bennett can push this type of aggressive reform agenda and win, it will give a big lift to other politicians eager to enact similar reforms.”
Bennett came to office four years ago as a virtual unknown promising to push for big changes. Working with Gov. Mitch Daniels and allies in the legislature, he’s found a way to enact a large percentage of his agenda in his first term. How many politicians can say that?
He worked to expand the state’s private school voucher program to make it the largest in the nation. He successfully pushed for limits on teacher union collective bargaining privileges. He established a new grading system for public schools and a new evaluation system for teachers.
Bennett also helped push through legislation that increased the number of charter schools in the state, arranged for a state turnover of five chronically failing schools, and established tough standards ending social promotions for public school students.
Bennett meant business and delivered on his promises. As a state newspaper recently noted, his record makes the Hoosier state school boss “nationally renowned within the school reform movement for a long list of changes he spurred.”
The superintendent himself is a little more modest, assigning himself a “B” grade in a recent interview with the Indianapolis Star.
“I say that because first, I think it’s very important to understand that I believe in my heart that reform is never finished, and results are never final,” Bennett was quoted as saying. “The fact is with all the outstanding things we’ve done, I don’t believe we got everything right.”
Ritz campaign – by the union, for the union
As much as Bennett is loved by some, he’s a lightning rod for criticism from teachers unions and other supporters of the K-12 status quo. And his enemies have been working hard to unseat him in the election.
They’ve thrown their support behind Democrat Glenda Ritz, a Washington Township teacher and former president of her local teachers union. While Bennett has pushed for big changes to move Indiana public education toward a better future, Ritz is calling for a return to the union-first policies that hurt schools for so long.
The bottom line is that Indiana’s teachers unions lost a great deal of their power and clout over the past four years. Teachers are now expected to produce results or find the door. Schools are expected to do the same or face a state takeover. Bennett is not interested in their excuses.
That’s why the unions have turned to one of their own to challenge Bennett. They want to return to the days when public school teachers could pretty much count on lifetime employment, regardless of their performance, and schools could continue to move students mindlessly along with social passes, regardless of how little they learned.
Ritz has been busy attacking Bennett’s reliance on student standardized test scores to measure teacher effectiveness. She told the media that there should only be regular standardized tests for reading. She would support more limited testing for math skills, but only through the 10th grade, according to a media report.
How convenient. By limiting the number of subjects that can be tested, Ritz would be limiting the number of teachers who are forced to demonstrate their effectiveness to keep their jobs. If Ritz were to win, parents would be left to wonder how students are doing in science, English or a host of other important subjects.
But then everyone knows the union’s number one priority is to keep the gravy train running for the most senior teachers, and of course itself.
Ritz and her supporters are also accusing Bennett of trying to destroy public education in favor of private companies that profit from operating charter schools.
“Schools are there to serve the public and students, but not to be for-profit opportunities for in-state and out-of-state companies,” Nate Schnellenberger, president of Indiana State Teachers Association, told the Associated Press.
Bennett, like most reformers, couldn’t care less if someone makes a profit, as long as kids learn.
“My bottom line is that students learn,” he was quoted as saying. “And these companies have a very clear understanding that I will get my bottom line before they get their bottom line.”
The truth is that the unions have been the only ones hurt by Indiana’s reforms, and they want revenge. Life was cushy for union bosses and government school teachers before Bennett came along, and they want that life back.
Perhaps that’s why Ritz has only raised about $75,000 in campaign contributions since the spring, “and nearly all of it came from the Indiana Federation of Teachers and a political action committee for teachers’ unions,” according to one newspaper.
Ritz’ campaign is being conducted by the unions for the benefit of the unions.
Remember ISTA Trust?
To read about her campaign, one might assume that Ritz is a newcomer to the statewide education scene. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Bennett has to run on his established record, it turns out Ritz has one of her own.
She was a member of the Indiana State Teachers Association board of directors when the union experienced a financial meltdown of its insurance arm.
ISTA Trust, which provided health and disability insurance to dozens of public school districts, lost $67 million of the money invested by schools due to gross mismanagement and was subsequently investigated by the FBI. The situation for the ISTA became so bad that its parent organization, the National Education Association, took over management of the state union.
Now Ritz wants to bring that type leadership to the state level.
Curiously, in its endorsement of Ritz, the ISTA didn’t mention the insurance scandal, nor did it mention that Ritz is a former president of the Washington Township Education Association, a suburban Indianapolis local teachers union.
ISTA likely doesn’t want voters to realize that it’s trying to elect one of its own to the state superintendent post. Such information might make the union appear self-serving, which is precisely what it always has been.
Regardless of the union’s intentions or its efforts to gloss over its candidate’s history, the election comes down to a contrast in visions, and is essentially a referendum on education reform.
Will voters embrace public school reform and expanded school choice, or ISTA’s plan to return to the nightmare days of having students trapped in failing schools, kids getting diplomas through social passes, and little or no accountability for teachers or schools?
We’ll find out tomorrow night.