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Bennett pledging new gains

District accountability touted in bid for new term


– Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett called for lagging school districts to be held accountable and funding flexibility in his third annual State of Education speech Tuesday night.

“Already, we have seen the type of steady gains in student performance that are encouraged by a system that sets high expectations, enforces accountability and increases freedom for educators and parents,” he said. “But we must not waver in our commitment to Indiana’s students.”

Bennett is seeking another four-year term, and if re-elected said he would focus on district-level leadership. The state has taken over individual failing schools but currently doesn’t have such powers in regard to entire districts.

“It has become clear that underperformance is often systemic, with problems rooted in district-level leadership,” he said. “To make a greater impact on student performance where it is most desperately needed, Indiana should begin to explore expanding accountability to the district level.”

After the speech, Bennett told reporters the state should have a menu of options for dealing with troubled districts – including takeover. And he pointed to Fort Wayne Community Schools as a district that has transformed itself and could serve as an example for others seeking a change.

Bennett’s Democratic opponent for the post criticized much of what Bennett has done in office, including accountability, teacher licensing and takeover of public schools by private entities.

“It is time to bring a common-sense approach to improving education, and that does not involve privatization,” longtime educator Glenda Ritz said. “I will lead this effort and work to regain local control of public schools. The Department of Education will provide the outreach support to individual local school districts to address challenges.”

Bennett also said Indiana should examine the funding of more early-education ventures such as preschool. But he didn’t advocate more money for K-12 education.

“As we look for better ways to fund our schools, we should not just focus on ways to give schools more money. As a former school leader, I know from experience that what a lot of districts really want is more freedom to use the money they already receive to advance their most effective programs,” he said.

“Indiana should find ways to reward successful districts with more funding flexibility and regulatory freedom.”

Much of Bennett’s address was spent revisiting strides Indiana has made in test scores, graduation rates and other key indicators.

He also touted a host of education changes passed, such as changing teacher evaluations to include student performance; granting vouchers for kids attending private schools; increasing the number of charter schools; and limiting collective bargaining for teachers.

Gov. Mitch Daniels pointed out many of those changes when he introduced Bennett, who he called the nation’s foremost reformer.

The governor said Bennett’s strength comes from being an old basketball coach, saying he has applied his competitive fire and determination to win to helping Indiana students improve and succeed.

“Tony Bennett is a stud,” Daniels said, quoting an outside educational expert. “He is that and more.”

Bennett highlighted a number of schools during his speech, including FWCS and its superintendent, Wendy Robinson, for pairing North Side High School with Fort Wayne Metals to be one of eight schools in the Conexus Advanced Manufacturing and Logistics pilot program this year.

North Side will align its curriculum with industry demands and utilize Ivy Tech to let students earn dual credits and industry certifications before they graduate. The experience gained through this program will make them competitive for jobs at companies such as Fort Wayne Metals, Cummins, Subaru, Honda and Toyota.