Few people, in education or out of it, spend five years in public life as eventful as the time since Tony Bennett’s election to the office of Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2008.
Since then, he oversaw the implementation of one of the nation’s most ambitious education overhauls, ran in perhaps the state’s most memorable down-ballot election in recent memory — and lost — moved to Florida to take command of that state’s Department of Education, and ultimately lost that job amid a controversy over emails he sent during his time as state superintendent in Indiana.
From Teacher To Schools Chief
A former science teacher and schools administrator, he won the post of Indiana’s schools chief in 2008 while running as a Republican and garnering 51 percent of the vote. (Indiana is one of only 14 states where the state’s public schools chief is elected.)
Bennett had been a critical force in moving forward education priorities of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ administration: school voucher programs, merit pay for teachers and expansion of charter schools, policies many teachers criticize. In his 2012 State of Education address, Bennett said he supported speeding up the timeline for state intervention in failing schools. But voters rejected his call for continued change.
But in what his opponent called a “referendum” on Indiana’s education overhaul, Bennett’s re-election bid for a second term as state superintendent fell short in November 2012 after he captured just 48 percent of the vote. Democrat Glenda Ritz organized a grassroots campaign opposing his policies with the financial backing of the Indiana State Teachers Association and hundreds of small donors, many of them teachers who had come to loathe Bennett and his policies.
After Indiana: The Email Controversy
Bennett’s success in pushing through these changes in Indiana had raised his national profile and brought in large campaign contributions from across the country. Just weeks after Bennett lost the election to Ritz, the Florida State Board of Education offered him the Sunshine State’s top schools job.
After barely eight months as Florida’s Education Commissioner, however, the Associated Press published emails showing Bennett had instructed state officials to tweak Indiana’s A-F letter grade rating formula to benefit 13 schools — including Christel House Academy, a charter school founded by a top donor. Though Bennett and others have defended his actions, many concluded the actions constituted “cheating.” While calling the AP report “malicious” and “untrue,” Bennett resigned his post in Florida, he said, to remove the “distraction” the story caused.