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Bennett’s reforms cost him his job

Protestors hold signs against proposed changes Indianeducatisystem as IndianSuperintendent Public InstructiDr. Tony Bennett answers questions about proposed changes during Regional

Protestors hold signs against proposed changes to the Indiana education system as Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett answers questions about the proposed changes during a Regional Education Reform Meeting in the Hebron High School gym Monday, Feb. 28, 2011, in Hebron, Ind. | Scott M. Bort~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 12, 2012 6:27AM



Indiana’s aggressive education reforms engineered by Tony Bennett galvanized his opposition and likely cost the state’s education chief his job.

Tuesday’s win by Glenda Ritz, an Indianapolis Democrat and school media specialist, stunned many across the state. But not Ritz supporters.

Ritz’s low-key campaign was fueled by teacher union cash and grass-roots support.

Ritz labeled the race between her and Bennett a “referendum on the future of education in Indiana.”

Ritz, of Carmel, opposed just about everything Bennett embraced. She spoke out against vouchers, letter grades for schools, merit pay for teachers and what she termed as a lack of transparency in the Department of Education.

In Tuesday’s election, Ritz received more votes than GOP Gov.-elect Mike Pence. She captured 52 percent of the vote to Bennett’s 48 percent. Bennett outspent her by a ratio of about 5-to-1, garnering $200,000 from a family member of a founder of a national chain store that supports charter schools and vouchers. Another pro-voucher group, Hoosier Economic Growth Political Action Committee, gave Bennett $25,000.

Speaking to “Education Week,” Bennett, a Republican, blamed his loss on Indiana teacher unions rallying behind Ritz and his advocacy of “common core” standards designed to overhaul the state’s curriculum and assessments. Approved in 2010 by the State Board of Education, the testing is set to begin in 2014.

Under Bennett’s watch, Indiana became one of the most reform-minded states in the country. Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels and a Republican-dominated legislature backed an onslaught of measures that expanded the growth of charter schools, vouchers for private schools, a third-grade literacy exam, an A-F grading system, high-stakes teacher evaluations, and a law that restricts the collective bargaining rights of teacher unions to include wages and benefits only.

Changes too fast

Even a charter school backer felt the pace was too swift.

“They want it all and they want it right now,” said Kevin Teasley, founder and president of the GEO Foundation, which operates charter schools including the 21st Century Charter School and Gary Middle College in Gary.

Teasley said incremental changes would have made more sense. “Tony was abrasive and he was full speed ahead.”

So much change so fast is tough for teachers on the front lines. “People in the classroom can’t keep up with all that stuff. There are legitimate gripes that teachers have ... It was not a vote for Ritz, it was a vote against Tony.”

Educators expect a less punitive approach with Ritz in the state’s top education job.

“At least Glenda Ritz is trying to slow this down and look at it,” said Merrillville Community School Corp. Assistant Superintendent Mark Sperling.

“I doubt very much that it’s going to go away, but perhaps it will be kinder and gentler. We’re asking our teachers to learn a new evaluation system and common core standards, which is taking away their focus in the classroom.”

Joe Zimmerman, president of the Gary Teachers Union, backed Ritz and said he’s optimistic but realistic about her ability to roll back reforms that have been set into law.

“With Pence and Republicans in control, she’s going to be limited in what she can do. It’s going to be an interesting legislative session.”

The Gary Community School Corp. saw its historic crown jewel, Roosevelt High School, fall under state control for poor academic performance when Bennett implemented a never-before-used state accountability law. Bennett placed Roosevelt, now known as the Roosevelt College and Career Academy, into the hands of a private, for-profit company.

Ritz said her campaign resonated with voters who disliked the private takeover of failing public schools and Bennett’s efforts to privatize public education.

Holding a press conference outside Roosevelt in July, Ritz said there had been too much focus on testing.

“This high-stakes testing is taking away valuable instructional time, as well as vocational programs and arts and music,” Ritz said. “Kids need a well-rounded education before graduating.”

Pence disagreed that Ritz’s win was a referendum on the education overhaul.

“We ran on a platform of continuing a bold agenda of education reform ... and we’ve been given the opportunity to lead based on those ideas,” Pence said.

Indiana State Teachers Association President Nate Schnellenberger said Pence was missing the point.

“I think that everybody understands that ... the result of this election means that Hoosier voters, Hoosier taxpayers, believe that the so-called education reforms were too radical and too fast-paced,” Schnellenberger said.

“I’m not saying that the reforms need to be abolished, but that they need to be tweaked and made more reasonable and more sensible.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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