INDIANAPOLIS – Republican Tony Bennett’s first term in office as superintendent of public instruction has been frenetic, with a pace and breadth of change that opens him up to criticism.
And that’s exactly where Democrat Glenda Ritz comes in, challenging the reforms he made to public education in his quest for re-election.
A former basketball coach, Bennett isn’t about to apologize for his hard-charging leadership style or the avalanche of change that came with it.
Education is a system of inertia. All systems have to be reformed sometime, he said. I don’t know how to do things other than 100 mph.
He does have one regret – that many people see him as hating public education and being angry at teachers.
One of his four children knows it all too well. While waiting tables last summer, his daughter – a newly minted teacher – met a fellow educator who launched into a diatribe of why he hates Bennett. She politely asked him to stop talking bad about her father and then debated him on key points.
Bennett’s relationship with educators and the state’s largest teachers unions has been bad from the start as he generally didn’t include them in base-level discussions on various topics. One example: Bennett demanded the Indiana State Teachers Union write a letter of support for four major reforms needed to receive a key federal grant. But the union was not allowed to see the final application.
Under his leadership, the state has expanded charter schools, established publicly funded vouchers for private school education, loosened teacher licensing requirements to allow more professionals into the classroom, taken over several failing schools and begun evaluating teachers in part on student performance.
Democrats generally have said the restructuring took funding from the public school classroom, diluting the pot of money available for those who can’t go elsewhere.
I can’t pick a favorite because we believe they all had to be done, Bennett said. We addressed education reform in a very comprehensive manner. We didn’t piecemeal it.
And scores have improved while graduation rates are rising.
This has produced a high national profile for Bennett, often asked to address major educational conferences. He flirted with a new job in Florida before pulling his name from consideration.
It’s important to continue to move the ball forward here, Bennett said of a possible second term paying about $88,000 a year.
He thinks some tweaks should be made to the school accountability law, which currently allows a range of intervention tactics including full state takeover after six years. Bennett and other Republicans say that timeline is too long. And he wants the state to have similar strategies for failing districts, including takeover.
Bennett, 51, also talks about using school funding to match policy such as allowing schools to earn funding bonuses for improvement in certain areas such as early-childhood education or career and technical education. These bonuses would be based on results, not just per-pupil data.
His opponent, Ritz, couldn’t disagree more with practically everything Bennett has done.
The 58-year-old mother of two has spent 33 years teaching at all levels. The one-time Republican has never run for office before and left the GOP fold in 2008 during the Obama swell.
I always registered as a Republican from the beginning, but I always split my ticket and voted for the best person, Ritz said. My ideals eventually led me to switching parties altogether.
Overall, she says the high-stakes testing in Indiana is out of control, from the ISTEP+ accountability test to a new third-grade reading test aimed at aggressively holding back students who can’t read at third-grade level.
It’s a detriment to all students, she said, noting the state focuses too much on the pass-fail rate of ISTEP instead of student growth under a teacher.
Ritz proposes regional education summits to talk to parents and teachers about the challenges in school and would reorganize the Indiana Department of Education to reflect that.
She also bristles about the use of the word reforms when talking about Bennett’s tenure.
The definition of reform is to bring about improvement, and I don’t think they are doing that, Ritz said, noting all the resources being taken from public schools.
She said her philosophy starts with listening to those in the system and working with them on solutions, not top-down directives with no input.
There are different ways to solve our problems, Ritz said.
One area she would focus on is improving vocational or technical education, saying not everyone is college-bound. But all students have to pass Algebra 1, which means some students are taking it multiple times and losing the opportunity to take other, more useful, classes.
It’s a valuable class that is needed for college, Ritz said. But maybe a different math approach might be needed for other careers.
She also dislikes the new A-F grading system instituted by Bennett, claiming it is a bell curve meant to deflate some schools’ scores.