Despite wins for charter schools in Washington State and Georgia, the education reform movement had to absorb a stunning number of defeats on election day last week. A number of education reform efforts were rejected in Idaho, Michigan and South Dakota, and a proposition to have organized labor take less of a role in the political process was voted down in California. But the biggest setback dealt to those who look to move America's education system away from the status quo came in Indiana, where reformist Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was denied a second term in favor of his Democratic opponent Glenda Ritz, who beat him by 6 points.
EAGNews reports that Bennett's defeat doesn't mean the end to the reforms he implemented during his tenure. Thanks to him and Governor Mitch Daniels, Indiana boasts one of the largest voucher programs in the nation. The state is also a home to the growing charter school movement, and the collective bargaining powers of teachers unions operating in Indiana have been reduced.
The man elected to replace Daniels, Republican Mike Pence, has already indicated that none of the policies Bennett put into effect will be overturned under his watch. Pence's commitment to Bennett's legacy will to a large degree tie Ritz's hands if she seeks to have some of Bennett's achievements replaced.
Those who supported Bennett when he was in office aren't backing down — they're already announcing plans to go further. House Speaker Brian Bosma has already indicated that the expanded Republican majority in both houses of the Indiana Legislature means that lawmakers will be moving forward with school choice expansion that Bennett had shelved prior to the election.
But Bennett's opponents – the Democrats and the Indiana State Teachers Association – claim the vote totals should give Ritz a mandate to tear up Bennett's list of accomplishments and start over.
They note that Ritz specifically campaigned against many of Bennett's reform, most specifically the A-F grading system for schools, teacher evaluation based on student test results, and the implementation of merit pay for outstanding teachers.
In the end Ritz won by a tally of 1,246,201 to 1,119,028.
Still, in a state that boasts strong conservative credentials, the defeat of such an establishment darling as Bennett — and especially one that was backed by a substantial war chest — came as a surprise. EAGNews offers several theories that explain the outcome of the election, from Bennett's confrontational style to his unwillingness to moderate his message and even to Ritz' success in embracing the label of underdog.
Then there was the reduced level of participation in the superintendent race, compared to other statewide elections in Indiana. More than 2.3 million voters cast a ballot for Bennett or Ritz, compared to the 2.5 million who voted for gubernatorial or U.S. Senate candidates.
That might mean that only people with a stronger interest in education politics took note of the race. Many of those tend to have strong ties or long relationships with public schools, and they tend to support the status quo.