Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett believes in holding students, teachers and schools accountable. But what about state superintendents? He says he’ll give his first term in office a “B.”
At a candidate forum Wednesday night at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Bennett says his only regret has been allowing his opponents to paint him as a politician who wants to privatize schools.
“There is this caricature of me that I’m an angry education reformer, that I’m anti-public schools, that I’m against public school teachers, and I think it’s in large part because I was so focused on the policy reform that maybe I neglected the message and we didn’t talk on how positive these things would be in the end,” Bennett says.
Bennett faced a tough crowd Wednesday with more supporters of his challenger, Glenda Ritz, in attendance. Organizing through the local teachers unions, Ritz has run a campaign to roll back many of his key policies. During the forum, she called it a “referendum” on Bennett’s initiatives.“Nationally, in his circles, he’s probably known for his reforms,” says Ritz. “But I would say in the state of Indiana, educators and parents don’t feel that way.”
Wednesday’s event was not a debate, but the two candidates for state superintendent fielded questions on many of the same subjects. Much of the race so far has focused on high stakes testing, accountability and teacher evaluation, all policies that came to prominence under Bennett.
Those topics came up Wednesday, too. But Indianapolis Star reporter Matt Tully, who moderated the forum, also pressed for answers on some other hot button education issues.
On the compulsory attendance age:
- Bennett: “I struggle with that because in my heart, I believe that decision up to (age) 7 is really in the best hands of the parents. … If we were to make that leap and say we were going to lower the compulsory attendance age, that has a fiscal impact. Because that means as opposed to the full day kindergarten grant, we would fund kindergarten as a full student.”
- Ritz: “We should lower the age to 5, and we should have preschool learning programs for students, especially in high risk need, and we should be focused on reading. When students can’t read, they can’t succeed. And therefore you have increased behavior problems, and you see this throughout their entire school career.”
On school turnaround:
- Bennett: “In terms of school turnaround, my bottom line is those children learn. I promise you, we’re going to get my bottom line before the business gets its bottom line. But if our children are learning at Manual, at Emma Donnan, at Arlington, at Roosevelt, at Howe, if our children are doing well there, I’m OK if they get their bottom line.”
- Ritz: “I’m for public dollars going to public schools, and not to go to private companies to make a profit off our students. … I’m not sure the Department of Education did its job to be proactive to be sure we had the proper bottom up support that was needed in the first place. It was a kind of a hands off, you get it done, or here’s the sanctions.”
On charter schools:
- Bennett: “But I feared we wouldn’t do what the charter school law said we should do, which was close bad ones. And guess what, we got 10 years into this, you’re right, it was scatter shot. For the first time we saw Mayor Ballard close a bad charter school. And that was the original intent of the law. Flexibility for exceptional accountability. Which is why we fought so hard for charter schools to be on the same grading system.”
- Ritz: “They are public schools, and they started out with local control. I don’t mind local control. … But now we have the Indiana Charter Board, and that’s totally different. That’s why we’re getting a proliferation of charter schools with for-profit companies who feel they can rightly so plan out years ahead, ‘Here’s when I’m coming into Indiana.’”
- Bennett: “I think it’s socially just that every child has the same opportunities my kids had. Because I got to shop where my kids went to school because I had the means. And I don’t believe that’s privatization of education. I believe that’s a socially just public policy that gives all children the opportunity to dream and to be what my children had.”
- Ritz: “I do not believe that public dollars should be going to private schools. The Supreme Court of Indiana will make a ruling on that sometime after Nov. 23.”
Send Us Your Questions
StateImpact will moderate a debate between Bennett and Ritz on Oct. 26. We want to hear from you. What issues have the candidates not covered? Let us know what questions will help you better understand the state superintendent race and help you make a decision Nov. 6.