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Public puts the brakes on reform


Just a day after first-time candidate Glenda Ritz defeated Tony Bennett, superintendent of public instruction, Republican officeholders scrambled to explain away the message voters sent.

“It was an anti-Tony Bennett vote more than a pro-Glenda Ritz vote,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

They just didn’t like Bennett’s style, offered Rep. Robert Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee.

“This is not an indictment in any way of reforms,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma.

Of course it is. In a state where 54 percent of voters supported Republican Mitt Romney, Bennett’s loss by more than 130,000 votes clearly shows the measures he pushed, eagerly approved by the GOP-controlled legislature and zealously carried out by the Department of Education, were unpopular. Parents of the million-plus students in Indiana public schools saw the effects in classrooms and bristled at the assertion that they had chosen an inferior education for their children. Elected school board members saw their decision-making authority diminished and 59,000 teachers, many with decades of experience, found themselves labeled ineffective and self-serving.

Bennett, an eager-to-please leader who never shed his basketball-coach persona, didn’t antagonize through his personality. He did so with unquestioning implementation of unfounded education practices. His overly confident and inexperienced staff pushed changes championed by for-profit corporations and anti-union interests. Views of educators at Indiana colleges of education were belittled and dismissed, even as their graduates excelled in classrooms.

Vic Smith, a retired superintendent, meticulously documents student achievement to show how Indiana was exceeding national averages and improving at a faster rate than states such as Florida, which Bennett held up as a model.

“Tony Bennett’s school letter grade system has produced D’s and F’s for 18.6 percent of all Indiana schools, in contrast to Florida, where 6 percent of all schools get D’s and F’s,” he observed. “Yet Indiana clearly outscores Florida on a common test …, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.”

On the most recent NAEP math test, Indiana eighth-graders outpaced Florida students and the U.S. overall by nine and five percentage points, respectively. Indiana fourth-graders bested Florida and U.S. fourth-graders in math by three and five percentage points, respectively.

Hoosiers want to feel good about their neighborhood schools, including parents who choose private or parochial schools. They know that tearing down public education is counterproductive in drawing jobs and economic investment, in encouraging diversity and civic engagement. They know the gloom-and-doom message from the Statehouse was counter to what they witnessed firsthand.

On Tuesday, voters saw in Ritz a public-education supporter who will draw out the best in students, teachers and parents not by labeling them as failing or by steering their tax support to private interests, but by encouraging them and offering research-backed best practices.

Gov.-elect Mike Pence and GOP lawmakers will make a grave mistake if they continue to tear down the schools Hoosiers have long embraced. They must deliver on the last-minute promise they made to support early learning. They must take responsibility for their charter and voucher investments. They need Ritz as a partner if they truly want to serve Indiana students.