Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Will Tony Bennett Be 'Raked Over Coals' In The Statehouse Chambers?

    Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

    A teleprompter aids state superintendent Tony Bennett as he delivers a televised address in September 2011.

    In education policy-watching circles, there have been whispers that legislative support for the changes state superintendent Tony Bennett implemented has been running thin.

    One potential piece of evidence that Indiana’s top school officials might face some tough questions from even their traditional supporters in the General Assembly on Tuesday made the editorial page of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette on Monday:

    Will state Superintendent Tony Bennett be raked over the coals when he appears before a panel of Indiana lawmakers Tuesday? His education “reform” partners far from Indiana think so, and they are rallying support for his agenda.

    Patricia Levesque, a lobbyist and top adviser to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, put out a call for letters backing Bennett’s policies to be sent to members of the Select Commission on Education.

    “Tony Bennett, Indiana’s incredible reform-minded leader in education is getting a lot of ‘friendly fire’ pushback on Indiana’s education reforms,” Levesque wrote in an email to school choice supporters. “While the public message is that this Select Commission is to get an update on the state of the reform policies and the implementation process, behind the scenes we have learned that the legislature will likely rake Tony over the coals.”

    She goes on to describe an interesting wrinkle in Indiana’s school-reform environment: The same lawmakers who dismissed concerns about unfair accountability requirements voiced by traditional public schools now are hearing the same complaints from their charter-school allies…

    Levesque is executive director of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group that paid for several of the dozen-plus trips Bennett took last year to promote vouchers, charter schools, merit pay and limits on collective bargaining. Tuesday’s commission meeting is the first of at least five sessions.

    Last session, Indiana General Assembly voted to convene a Select Commission on Education over the summer — but by most indications, this isn’t a normal interim study committee.

    House Enrolled Act 1376 requires the commission to meet at least five times and include members of both the House and Senate. As the law reads, legislators will deal with the following topics:

    • State system of assinging letter grades to schools. “The process of adoption and content of rules adopted by the Indiana state board of education concerning categories or designations of school improvement…. including the matrices used for the A-F designations,” HEA 1376 says. This is on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.
    • Teacher evaluations. “Proposed rules, adopted rules, and policies of the department of education and the Indiana state board of education… concerning teacher evaluations and licensing.”
    • “Any other issue that the legislative council or commission considers necessary.”

    Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

    The Indiana Statehouse reflected in the windows of the building housing the Indiana State Teachers Association.

    Last week, StateImpact spoke with state Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, who will be on the Select Commission. Skinner, an outspoken critic of the policies Tony Bennett has promoted, is skeptical that Bennett will be “raked over the coals” — at least by the Republicans on the commission.

    Skinner figures too many Republicans have their names and votes attached to Bennett-endorsed policies to openly criticize the state’s top school official. He also thinks Patricia Levesque — the Jeb Bush advisor who put out the all-call to support Bennett — is simply backfilling with those who’ve traditionally supported the current direction in state education policy.

    But at the same time, Skinner says he thinks his Republican counterparts see Bennett’s policies as electorally unpopular. That, Skinner theorizes, puts them in the difficult position of having to separate themselves from education policy changes without bashing Bennett openly.

    “The Republicans who supported this stuff have finally realized that there are going to be repercussions in the upcoming elections, and they hope the target is Bennett. I think most of them think Bennett will have enough money to defend himself… I think they think Bennett is going to be okay, but I do think they feel a need to distance themselves from Bennett to some degree,” Skinner says.

    Skinner, a former teacher, says he hopes the commission will offer legislators an opportunity to step back after unleashing “tidal waves of reform” in Indiana schools over the past several years.

    “It is my hope that this committee would take a look at [the changes to policy] and to be responsible enough to say ‘Hey, we made a mistake with this one.’ Or be smart enough to say ‘Hey, this one’s working, this one’s showing some results,'” Skinner says.

    Share your comments: What do you expect to come out of the Tuesday meeting of the Select Commission on Education? Or in the four meetings to follow? And will Bennett face tough question — or is that notion trumped up, as Skinner suggests?


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