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What Commentary On Bennett A-F Emails Has Been Missing: Indiana Context

Outgoing Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett starts his new job as Florida Commissioner of Education Monday.

WFIU / WTIU News

On his last day in his Indiana office, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett discusses the education initiatives he pushed.

“Congrats,” writes Jonathan Plucker for Education Week, “you got rid of the great ed reform satan for good! Now what?”

Of course, he’s talking — and probably joking about the “satan” part — about former state superintendent Tony Bennett, who last month resigned from his job as Florida Commissioner of Education after the Associated Press released emails showing Bennett had changed school accountability grades here in Indiana.

Plucker spent a decade tracking state-level education policy as the director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy before leaving last fall for the University of Connecticut. He weighs in this week with some context for Bennett’s rise and fall:

The Tony Bennett I came to know is very different from the person depicted in the media and policy circles, both the fawning profiles and over-the-top criticism. I could write a book on the lessons learned, but here’s the abridged version:

Both sides are forgetting the Indiana context. Dr. Suellen Reed, Tony’s predecessor, learned that she had lost support within her party for a fifth term via Gov. Daniels’ press conference announcing his support for Tony’s nomination. That story may be apochryphal, but it quickly made the rounds and offended many, given Dr. Reed’s popularity and her status as one of the top Republican vote-getters during the “wilderness years” when Democrats controlled state politics for nearly two decades. People forget that the governor was polling in the 30s at that point and had many enemies within public education, enemies that Tony inherited. At the same time, parties returning to power after a generation often have a “reform wish list,” and they tend to be uncompromising at first. Battle lines were drawn early and firmly.

The haters emerged early and never relented. I was one of them. Within days of his election, rumors about Tony, many scandalous, began making their rounds among educators. My center began experiencing icy relations with the Indiana DOE. After a few frosty months, a mutual friend sat down with us and basically told us to get along. To my surprise, I liked the guy — he’s funny, smart, loves his family. We didn’t agree on everything, but he was open to debate, and from that point forward, we talked regularly. Although we gave each other a second chance, others weren’t so forgiving. I attended several meetings where Tony reached out to stakeholders, soliciting input or correcting misconceptions in the department’s positions. But his foes often left those meetings and publicly repeated the misconceptions, or declared that the department was not open to input.

Plucker writes that most of the commentary surrounding the Bennett emails has been “reasonable” (and, for his part, thinks Bennett was right to resign in Florida). But he also says many commentators have missed what he sees as the biggest lesson in the scandal.

“Focusing enmity on one elected official is almost always counterproductive. That’s easy to forget in today’s polarized political context,” he writes.

Plucker points out that the state legislature is actually more firmly Republican than it was when Bennett was in office, with a conservative governor. That could mean most of the Bennett-era education initiatives are probably safe.

But it’s worth noting that the legislature flagged the state’s A-F accountability system for a rewrite even before Bennett’s emails came to light. The Common Core academic standards the former superintendent championed are up for a review. And it’s unclear what standardized test Indiana students will take next.

Comments

  • Guest

    I agree with Plucker: let’s not vilify Bennett. It’s the policies of “reform” that we should all t

    • Bilgewater

      How about instead of focusing on vilifying Bennett, that we raise up the teachers that suffered under Bennett’s ill-conceived education reforms?

      I am delighted that he was defeated back in November, and I’m ecstatic that he lost his job in Florida. He found out first hand what it’s like to lose his job. Teachers lost their jobs because of him; even though he is “damaged goods”, I expect someone in the reform movement will give him a very nice job.

      Can the same be said for the teachers who were unfairly targeted by him?

      I personally think what he’s done might be prosecutable. But if I’m wrong and he gets a slap on the wrist, he should at least be deprived of the chance to have a microphone and bully pulpit. (I’ve seen him speak.)

  • CFR

    I agree with Plucker. Let’s not vilify Bennett and overly emphasize what he did. Instead, let’s look at what changes the policies that his colleagues (the governor, the state legislators, Jeb Bush, the Chiefs of Change, etc) have had on education and, most importantly (to me), the environment our children are learning in every day. Thanks to THEIR zealous focus on data and accountability, we have the state controlling what happens in our children’s classrooms by the constant emphasis on the test. How can these schools help it? If there are private entities (the contributors to not only Bennett’s campaign coffers, but these other politicians as well) looking to make money off of “turnaround” and charter schools, vouchers, testing and more testing, changes in curriculum and teacher education as a result of how schools perform on tests, their primary attention and energy will be spent on teaching to that test.

    As a mother, I am more interested in whether or not my kids have access to a broad curriculum including art, music, P.E., a librarian, science lab, etc. I want qualified teachers who have an education background and knowledge in what is developmentally appropriate for my kids as well as methods with which to engage and inspire them. Our state legislature passed a form of REPA2 to give anyone with any degree the ability to become a teacher. They passed a law to allow people to be superintendents with NO education background whatsoever. They took away the teachers’ ability to advocate for kids’ classroom environment by taking away their collective bargaining rights. They took away the teachers’ ability to determine that the direction of learning in their classrooms align with the levels and interests of the kids when they tied their jobs to test scores.

    These things are the result of more than just Tony Bennett. Let’s keep our eyes wide open and see how the state legislature, the governor’s office and his elected board of education have all worked together to gut the funding for public schools, forced a teach-to-the-test environment, graded that on a curve, de-professionalized our teachers, and taken away local control. We Hoosiers voted for these people whose pockets are lined with those who make profit off of our kids. Let’s vote them out. Bennett was a drop in the bucket of what needs to happen.

  • Karynb9

    I don’t necessarily think it’s about attacking Tony Bennett personally — I think the push-back has to do with the fact that the big ed reform narrative over the years has been an altruistic “WE want to improve education for students…and those opposed to our ideas of ed reform are only opposed to it because they want to protect their own adult self-interests.” Bennett’s emails revealed that those at the forefront of the ed reform movement are just as concerned with their own self-interests (“Don’t make me look like a liar”). Neither side gets to take the moral high ground on this topic (because I don’t know that ALL of those opposed to the Jeb Bush style of ed reform are 100% student-focused either) now, so maybe we can stop the “We’re-in-it-for-the-kids-and-you’re-not” battles and just come together to actually, I don’t know, help the kids?

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