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Tony Bennett's inevitable defeat

Two groups are surprised by Superintendent Tony Bennett's defeat Tuesday:

First, there are the people who really weren't paying attention to what was going on in Indiana public schools.

Then there are the people in the echo chamber – those surrounded by like-minded people extolling the virtues of vouchers, privatization and teacher union-bashing without offering proof that they actually improve achievement. A lot of my colleagues in the media were caught up in that echo chamber, I'm sorry to note.

But anyone listening to public-school teachers and parents understands they've had enough – enough with the standardized testing; enough with labeling schools and teachers and children with failing grades; enough with handing local control of schools off to for-profit companies.

Gov. Mitch Daniels and Gov.-elect Mike Pence were furiously trying to discount Bennett's loss today.

"Pence and Daniels both said that does not mean that the voters rejected the education reforms that have been pushed through under Daniels and Bennett," writes Mary Beth Schneider at the Indianapolis Star. "In fact, Pence said his election affirms those reforms."

By no stretch of the imagination does Pence's election affirm the aggressive education agenda pushed by Bennett and Daniels. Bennett collected more than $1.5 million in campaign cash, outraising Ritz by a 5 to 1 margin. It should have been a cake-walk for him, but he lost by nearly 150,000 votes in a state that went easily to Republican Mitt Romney. Ritz captured more votes than Pence.

Schneider reports that Pence wouldn't say whether Republicans might use their supermajority in the General Assembly to make the superintendent position appointed rather than elected.

My guess is no – the politically astute among the Indiana lawmakers recognize when voters are angry, as they did in passing property tax reform after Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson was upset by Republican Greg Ballard. They won't miss the message voters sent and they will feel no obligation to Pence to give him the superintendent appointment, especially at the risk of angering voters when all House members and half the Senate members face reelection in 2014. Pence won narrowly, even though he's enjoyed a high-profile position in Congress and he ran against a candidate who had never sought a statewide office.

It's also wrong to suggest that Ritz will have little ability to influence policy. As head of the Indiana Department of Education, she'll be in the position to take a close look at the effects of charter schools, turnaround operators and vouchers and to make those effects known. Bennett has done his best to keep the public from knowing what's going on at DOE, but Ritz can restore the transparency.

The advantages afforded the school choice-crowd are about to end and the emphasis on "public instruction" will be restored.

Again, the most politically astute among the GOP lawmakers in Indiana will realize that their electoral success had as much to do with Republican-controlled redistricting than with any sort of education-agenda mandate. Demography is destiny, and the effects of that redistricting could fade very quickly. Don't think for a minute that some lawmakers aren't nervously looking at 2014.

Another important point: Bennett's defeat captured national attention – here and here.

It was also among some other important "education reform" defeats. In Utah, the so-called Luna Laws, pushed by Bennett colleague Tom Luna, were rejected. Candidates backed by the pro-reform Stand for Children lost in Colorado and an effort to hand control of the schools to the mayor lost in Bridgeport,Conn.

Even Michael Petrilli – at the conservative Thomas Fordham Institute – conceded Bennett's loss was a referendum on Indiana's aggressive education agenda.

Petrilli makes the mistake others are making in ascribing Ritz's win to union support. Certainly, she was supported by the ISTA and AFT, but teacher unions in Indiana have been effectively neutered. It was a tremendous grassroots movement by teachers and public education advocates like Vic Smith, Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education and the Indiana Coalition of Public Education that fueled her win.

An election upset? Not for any of us paying close attention.

But Tuesday's winners will have to stay vigilant. They will have to keep reminding lawmakers that they reject the influence bought with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. If they lose the school voucher battle – with arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court scheduled for Nov. 21 – they will have to work hard to keep reminding voters that control of Indiana schools – and the millions in tax dollars that follow – still are at risk.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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