TERRE HAUTE —
There was a time when few Hoosiers outside of education circles could name the state superintendent of public instruction.
That era has passed.
In conversation, Indiana residents no longer assume that a mention of “Tony Bennett” refers to the guy who sings “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Instead, a spirited discussion is about to ensue about the man who runs the Indiana Department of Education. That Tony Bennett is widely recognized.
Hoosiers know a lot more about Bennett than they did on Nov. 4, 2008, when he received 1,294,833 votes to narrowly beat Richard Wood, a Democrat from Lafayette whom 1,243,693 Hoosiers picked. In less than three years on the job, that Tony Bennett has become synonymous with a relentless, unwavering and unapologetic pursuit of reforms, resulting in the nation’s broadest use of state-funded vouchers for private-school tuition, an expansion of charter schools, limiting collective bargaining by teachers to salaries and benefits, and a system of merit pay and testing-based evaluations for teachers.
Reading the previous sentence aloud could leave you short of breath. Likewise, when Bennett speaks about those changes, he gets so animated that it seems he’s forgotten to exhale.
“The guy has a passion that’s Herculean,” said Justin Oakley, president of the Martinsville Classroom Teachers Association, “but I feel it’s in the wrong direction.”
Oakley’s comment sums up the choice voters will face on Nov. 6, 2012. Is Bennett and his supersonic reform train taking the education of Indiana kids from kindergarteners to high schoolers in the right direction? Hoosiers who say, “Yes,” to that question will assume much about the changes Bennett has won, thanks to fellow Republicans who control state government. His backers must believe those reforms haven’t weakened Indiana’s constitutional commitment to a public school system that is free and open to all, or unfairly connected teachers and their unions to any educational problem, or unwisely opened the door for corporations to assume responsibility for operating schools.
Not everyone sees Bennett leading Indiana in the right direction. His opposition includes Oakley, a 34-year-old history teacher at Martinsville East Middle School and a possible Democrat challenger for the state superintendent’s job in 2012. Oakley has filed exploratory papers for a potential run against Bennett. The Democratic nominee will be chosen by delegates to the party’s state convention June 15-17 at Fort Wayne. The Republicans do the same next summer, and Bennett has not yet formally announced he’ll seek re-election. After a speech in Terre Haute last week, he said an announcement is coming soon.
Oakley could face steep odds, but said in a telephone interview, “If I do run, I’ll be in it to win it.”
The controversial, whirlwind changes have raised Bennett’s visibility and name recognition beyond state borders. On Thursday, he was the headline speaker at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council’s national meeting in Phoenix. In August, he spoke at a conference on U.S. students’ ability to compete globally hosted by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. Bennett chairs a national group of like-minded state school superintendents, Chiefs for Change.
Clearly, he’s more than a blip on conservative radar screens. Republicans in the Indiana Legislature bought into his and Gov. Mitch Daniels’ school reforms wholesale in last winter’s tumultuous session. In a traditional GOP stronghold like Indiana, such notoriety and favor from right-leaning politicians would seem to signal a re-election victory for Bennett next November. That presumption, though, depends on whether Hoosier voters have confidence in the changes promoted by Bennett.
The perception that Daniels, Bennett and the Republican lawmakers have inaccurately painted public schools as failing and heaped blame on teachers could influence and energize some voters. “There’s nothing in these [school-reform] bills specifically about students being accountable or parents being held accountable. It’s all about teachers,” Oakley said.
A total of 62,998 teachers work in Indiana’s public schools. The legislation rolling through the General Assembly in March and April triggered many teachers to attend protests at the Statehouse and other venues around Indiana. When asked whether any of those public-school educators are slowly being won over, Bennett said, “I think many teachers are. You know, look, I’m not blind. I don’t think we’ve won over the teacher unions.”
Yet, among the successes Bennett points to, so far, is a turnaround last school year at Marion High School, where administrators, teachers and the local teachers union collaborated in a state intervention by the Department of Education to pull that school off the state’s failing list. Bennett thinks such a reversal shows that cooperation, rather than resistance, can bring positive results.
“I have conversations every day with great young teachers, great older teachers. We just recognized the Indiana History Teacher of the Year,” Bennett said. “And we are hearing more and more people who [say], ‘You know what? I don’t necessarily agree with all of this, but I kind of think a lot of it is starting to make some sense, and we’re getting on board.”
In the process, though, legions of Indiana teachers were demoralized by constant references to “bad teachers” and “failing public schools.” Many teachers were caught off guard by the rhetoric, the lawmakers’ challenge to teacher unions, and the wave of reform laws, Oakley said.
“There’s a dirty secret that teachers walk lockstep with their union. They don’t,” Oakley said. “Teachers are the most unpolitical people I’ve met, and it’s hurt them.”
Oakley feels motivated to stand up not only for his profession and colleagues, but also a different form of leadership from the state superintendent. The post has been held by Republicans since 1973. Other Democrats, including state Sen. Tim Skinner, a retired Vigo County teacher, and Vigo schools superintendent Danny Tanoos have been mentioned as possible challengers to Bennett next fall.
So far, no Democratic candidates have formally announced intention to run, an Indiana Democratic Party spokeswoman confirmed. Party Chairman Dan Parker was unavailable to comment last week on the 2012 state superindendent’s race, she said.
The Democratic slot is on many minds, though. As Skinner put it last week, “I was told long ago to ‘never say never.’ I will do whatever is necessary to make sure Tony Bennett has a worthy opponent in the upcoming election.”
Meanwhile, Bennett says the most difficult work — implementing reforms, and pushing for more — is still ahead. His list includes a pursuit of complete full-day kindergarten throughout Indiana. Many Hoosiers thought full-day kindergarten — which has shown clear, positive results elsewhere — should have been a legislative priority, instead of less-proven concepts such as taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.
Voters will ultimately decide 11 months from now. Bennett is forging ahead.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” he said moments after a room full of Rotarians listened to him speak Tuesday at the Holiday Inn in Terre Haute. “It’s been a tough slog, and it will continue to be difficult. And we have to continue to reach out. We have to continue to have the courage to have hard conversations and the courage to listen and adapt. And we’re trying to do that.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@