By Steve Gunn

INDIANAPOLIS – Any way you slice it, election night was ugly for the education reform movement.

Promising reform packages already adopted by legislatures and signed by governors were soundly rejected by the voters of Idaho, South Dakota and Michigan. A ballot proposal that would have curbed teacher union political influence went down in flames in California.

But no setback was more difficult to swallow than Tony Bennett’s loss in Indiana.

Bennett, the first-term state superintendent of public instruction, is a national hero within the reform movement. Working with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Republican legislature, he managed to enact an ambitious reform agenda that drastically altered the direction of public education in his state.

Thanks largely to Bennett, Indiana now has the largest private school voucher program in the nation, teachers unions have more limited collective bargaining power, teachers and schools have more accountability, the state has taken over some chronically failing schools, and the number of charter schools has been increased.

In Indiana, a bastion of conservative Republicanism, one would think such a track record would have been enough to guarantee a landslide victory and bright political future for Bennett. But when the dust cleared Wednesday morning, Bennett had fallen to Democrat Glenda Ritz by six percentage points.

The good news is that Indiana Governor-elect Mike Pence, a Republican, quickly announced that the education reforms adopted under Bennett will remain state policy. Ritz may have a completely different agenda, but she doesn’t have the constitutional power to change much of substance without the consent of other lawmakers, most of whom are Republicans.

Yet reformers remain worried about the meaning of the vote totals. Were Indiana voters rejecting Bennett on a personal level, or were they indicating a sudden, large-scale frustration with his policies?

Bennett’s success gave a lot of lawmakers around the nation the courage to move forward in their own states. Will his defeat make them more timid?

New governor will stand by Bennett’s reforms

Shortly after the election, Pence put panicky reformers at ease by announcing that he has no intention of walking away from the important changes that were adopted at Bennett’s urging.

He argued that his victory, along with the election of huge Republican majorities in the state legislature, indicates that voters are happy with the policies of the Daniels administration, including education policies.

“We have a strong affirmation on the progress of education reform in this state,” Pence told the “I’m going to be looking for partners in both political parties to continue to lead on education reform and that includes our new superintendent of public instruction.”

Outgoing Gov. Daniels, not long ago considered a possible contender for the GOP presidential nomination, said Ritz’ ability to change policy will not only be checked by the new governor and legislature, but by the Indiana State Board of Education.

“Not one word of those (education reform) laws is going to be changed,” Daniels said. “There’s a board of education I appointed that the new superintendent reports to. Every one of them is pro-reform, and we have a very idealist pro-reform (gubernatorial) administration coming in.

“The consensus and the momentum for reform and change in Indiana is rock solid.”

House Speaker Brian Bosma also remains loyal to the cause, promising to move forward with new education reform initiatives like expanded school choice.

But Bennett’s opponents – the Democrats and the Indiana State Teachers Association – claim the vote totals should give Ritz a mandate to tear up Bennett’s list of accomplishments and start over.

They note that Ritz specifically campaigned against many of Bennett’s reform, most specifically the A-F grading system for schools, teacher evaluation based on student test results, and the implementation of merit pay for outstanding teachers.

In the end Ritz won by a tally of 1,246,201 to 1,119,028.

“The results speak for themselves,” said state Sen. Tim Lanane, the incoming Senate minority leader. “The result was shocking and I think those who choose to simply just ignore it and say we can go another route, I don’t think that’s right. In this state, democracy is what is important and the people have spoken.”

It’s possible that the Democrats may have a point. The fact that Indiana went predictably Republican in most races  – voting for Mitt Romney, Pence and Republican legislative majorities – might only mean that they remain loyal to the bulk of the GOP platform, but take exception with the state’s education policies.

But we think there was probably much more to it than that.

Bennett had a target on his back

Part of the problem for Bennett may have been his outspoken, confrontational style. As one local school board member told the, “Tony never saw a battle he couldn’t stay out of.” That type of approach tends to burn bridges and create new enemies who come back to haunt you.

Another factor may be been the superintendent’s embrace of national core educational standards, which have been pushed by the Obama administration as a cookie-cutter answer to the nation’s academic challenges. Many conservatives don’t care for Washington D.C.’s prescribed cures for educational problems and criticized Bennett for endorsing them.

That may have left a lot of Tea Party types on the sidelines in Bennett’s race.

Then there was the reduced level of participation in the superintendent race, compared to other statewide elections in Indiana. More than 2.3 million voters cast a ballot for Bennett or Ritz, compared to the 2.5 million who voted for gubernatorial or U.S. Senate candidates.

That might mean that only people with a stronger interest in education politics took note of the race. Many of those tend to have strong ties or long relationships with public schools, and they tend to support the status quo.

We also think Ritz may have played the underdog role to perfection. She undoubtedly got a lot of mileage by publicizing the fact that Bennett had a much larger campaign war chest, and much of his financial support came from out of state.

But more than anything, we believe Bennett probably fell victim to his willingness to tell the unvarnished truth without employing a great deal of tact. He was not afraid to go nose-to-nose with ISTA and tell union leaders about the negative impact they’ve had on education.

As Bosma put it, Bennett’s greatest enemy may have been the “tone and language” he employed while pursuing his agenda.

That created a great deal of resentment among union types, and they were more than happy to unite and campaign for Ritz and show up at the ballot box in very big numbers.

In the end the unions were successful. They managed to remove their arch-enemy from office and replace him with a former local ISTA president who will undoubtedly serve as a loyal union tool.

But Ritz is all but powerless to undo the good things that Bennett did. If citizens have a problem with that, and want more union-style management of public schools, they will certainly let that be known in future polls and elections.

But for now education reforms appear safe in Indiana. That’s one silver lining to an otherwise miserable election cycle.