News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

November 11, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Hoosier voters issue mandate on Bennett’s school reforms

TERRE HAUTE — Mike Pence, Mitch Daniels and Indiana legislators should respect the votes of 1,315,026 Hoosiers.

That’s how many people voted to change the leadership of K-through-12 education in Indiana. Fifty-three percent of voters chose Democrat Glenda Ritz as the new superintendent of public instruction over incumbent Republican Tony Bennett in Tuesday’s election.

This 58-year-old woman — a northside Indianapolis elementary school teacher with 33 years of classroom experience — drew 132,528 more votes than Bennett — the guy who led a relentless flurry of school reforms during his past four years in office. Her support embodies a significant block of the Hoosier electorate. Obviously, a majority of voters favored a superintendent vowing to end the current teaching-to-the-test atmosphere in Indiana public schools, and analyze the effects of the largely untested reforms before more are enacted.

Those voters’ determination was historic; the state hasn’t elected a Democrat state superintendent in 40 years.

Ritz’s win was a mandate.

Yet, her election elicited a curious reaction from the men at the top levels of Indiana government.

Pence, the congressman who won the governor’s seat Tuesday, greeted her victory by reiterating his support for the policies Bennett drove into reality, including the nation’s broadest use of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private school tuition, a curtailment of teachers’ collective bargaining rights, merit pay for teachers based on student test scores, and more standardized testing. “We have strong affirmation on the progress of education reform in this state,” Pence said in his acceptance speech late Tuesday night, as reported by CNHI’s Maureen Hayden.

Pence based that comment on Tuesday’s election of a super majority of Republicans in the Indiana House and Senate, rather than Ritz’s victory in the actual race for state superintendent of public instruction. In that line of thinking, voters apparently liked the education overhaul enough to re-elect the legislators who enacted it all, but inexplicably forgot to fill in the circle beside the name of the man who championed the changes, Bennett.

Probably just an oversight.

Or maybe, just maybe, Hoosiers really don’t like all of the reforms and the fast pace, and instead saw Ritz — a longtime Republican who switched parties just to challenge Bennett — as a voice of reason.

Pence did not acknowledge that possibility.

Instead, Pence and Daniels, the outgoing governor, reminded reporters that Ritz will have to answer to the state Board of Education, whose 10 members are appointed by, yes, the governor. That board — “rock solid” in its support of reform and its momentum, Daniels emphasized — will serve as a shield against major policy reversals that might be attempted by Ritz (whom voters overwhelmingly selected as the new state superintendent).

Girded by that barrier against Ritz’s plans, Pence said he would work with her to find “common ground.”

How deep is that spirit of cooperation?

Well, at Tuesday’s post-election news conference, Daniels suggested the Legislature might abolish the structure of the office she just won, changing it from an elected position to one appointed by the governor. Using the logic that the state’s top educator should reflect the views of the chief executive, the appointed-superintendent idea has been bandied by both parties for years. But the night of Ritz’s election by a hefty majority seems like a strange moment to resurrect that plan. So much for common ground.

If Ritz’s successful campaign — which overcame her lack of name recognition and a 4-to-1 spending advantage for Bennett, including large out-of-state contributors — can be so easily dismissed, then the victories of Pence and the GOP legislators, likewise, do not amount to the mandate Pence felt they’d received. Ritz, after all, received more votes statewide than Pence did in his own race. More Hoosiers voted for her on Tuesday than voted for Daniels in 2004, when he won his first term.

The governors seem to be in denial, wounded by the possibility that voters aren’t crazy about all of their major objectives. Yes, Pence and the Republicans received commanding control of the Statehouse through Tuesday’s election. Clearly, Indiana voters support many of their ideas, but not all. Pence and Daniels can minimize Ritz’s win, blaming it on the power of teachers unions and the education “establishment,” or limiting it to a general distaste for Bennett’s brash style and repeated, morale-killing references to “bad teachers” and “failing schools.”

Those rationalizations may hold some grains of truth, but dodge the larger reality. There are only 62,258 public-school teachers in Indiana. Even if every single one of them voted for Ritz, that still wouldn’t account for her margin of victory. The more plausible explanation involves the 1,046,661 public-school students, and their parents, guardians, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, fellow church members, Little League coaches, Cub Scout den mothers and gymnastics instructors. The tension and uncertainty amid the upheaval concerns them.

As offensive as it sounds to the men in power, maybe Hoosiers were glad — even relieved — to hear the woman voters chose to be the next state superintendent suggest that Indiana’s educational change bulldozer find a lower gear. If the dust never settles, it’s hard to see where you’re going. Maybe Hoosiers don’t like the concept of for-profit corporations running their public schools, or high-stakes standardized tests, or public-funded private-school vouchers. Or all of the above, all at once.

Voters elected Glenda Ritz. The governor and lawmakers should not dismiss her.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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