In retrospect, it could prove to be the biggest mystery of this election season: How did the popular Indiana official, state Superintendent of Education Tony Bennett, who only two months ago enjoyed a strong base of support and the confidence of the state governor Mitch Daniels, come to be voted out of office earlier this week? After the ballots were counted, Bennett’s attempt to win a second term was thwarted by his Democratic opponent Glenda Ritz, who locked up 54% of the vote.
According the Courier-Journal, after outraising Ritz by more than four to one, Bennett was widely expected to win his second term easily. Yet, in the end, Ritz was able to draw on support from teachers and educators around the state who felt that the pace of reform favored by Bennett was too rapid.
Bennett first put himself up as a candidate for the superintendency at the behest of Daniels, who thought that Republican Sue Ellen Reed, who held the position at the time, wasn’t moving fast enough to overhaul Indiana’s education system. In looking for someone who shared his reform goals, Daniels found Bennett who was serving his second year as a superintendent of the Greater Clark school system. When it came to education, Bennett was Daniels’ ideological twin. Both favored the “conservatively-flavored” education reform put into effect strongly and quickly.
By 2011, the previously frustrated Daniels finally had the pieces in place to push a major education reform agenda — a strong ally in Bennett as state superintendent and huge Republican majorities in the legislature. Change came fast and furiously — a new voucher program, an expansion of charter schools, limits on teacher unions, testing-linked teacher evaluation, a new third grade reading requirement and the first-ever execution of a state law allowing state takeover of troubled schools. It was like everything Daniels ever wanted during his eight years in office he managed to get done in two years with Bennett.
It might have been that speed that proved to be Bennett’s undoing. According to the Indianapolis Star, in pushing forward so quickly, both Bennett and Daniels failed to make sure that the people they were ostensibly implementing these reforms for were still behind them. Another possible misstep on Bennett’s part might have been not reaching out to teachers early enough the in the process and attempting to build some mutual trust.
Teachers long have complained about the way Bennett talked about them, that they felt he was blaming teachers for all the state’s education woes. For example, when Ritz said during the campaign that Bennett was testing obsessed, his answer to me was to say: “Our problem is not assessment. Our problem is instruction.” A lot of teachers took that personally.