Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

As Tony Bennett Prepares To Take Florida Job, A Look Back At The Last Four Years

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett delivers the State of Education address on September 13, 2011.

During his one term as state superintendent, Tony Bennett pushed for a controversial package of education initiatives that brought Indiana to the forefront of a national conversation about how to transform public schools.

In the weeks since the Nov. 6 election, we’ve written extensively about why Glenda Ritz won and how Tony Bennett lost. But just one month after Indiana voters rejected his brand of education overhaul, Bennett has a new jobFlorida Commissioner of Education.

It’s hard to say how the next four years will play out with a Democratic superintendent and Republican governor and state legislature. But looking back on the last four, this much is clear: Tony Bennett has few regrets.

A Political Newcomer, Bennett Drew National Attention

So Tony Bennett is sitting in a Cracker Barrel. This isn’t the punch line to some joke. It’s where then-State Board of Education member Todd Huston convinced Bennett to run for state superintendent back in January 2008.

“The thing about Tony is he’s completely genuine,” Huston told StateImpact. “He says what he’s going to do, and he goes and does it. I recognize sometimes that will to rankle people, but in truth we need more people like that.”

Bennett went on to win his race with 51 percent of the vote. For the next four years, with the blessing of outgoing Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, Bennett pushed for the sweeping overhaul of Indiana schools. Speaking earlier this month, Bennett called it the most fulfilling job he’s ever had:

I’ll be really bold here. What other state school chief in the history of the country has had the opportunity to serve with a governor in his second term who has an approval rating of almost 70 percent who made education reform a priority and said, ‘Go forth, craft, execute, and implement the most bold education reform agenda in the United States?’ Who gets that chance?

During Bennett’s tenure he signed Indiana up for the Common Core, a set of new academic standards adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. He pushed for a third grade reading test. He supported teacher evaluations, merit pay and one of the most expansive school vouchers laws in the country. He applied for a waiver to replace No Child Left Behind in Indiana with an A-F accountability system. The state took over five struggling schools.

When it came time to run for re-election, more than a million dollars poured into Bennett’s campaign from out-of-state supporters.

Abrasive Style May Have Cost Bennett Some Votes

Then what no one could have predicted in August happened. Tony Bennett lost. Glenda Ritz defeated him by about four points.

“I believe this was an issue where it was more about not electing Tony Bennett,” Bennett told StateImpact after delivering his concession speech. “Again, no one will convince me that these aren’t the right policies. We can argue that all night long.”

Jimmy Jenkins / Indiana Public Media

Democrat Glenda Ritz celebrates her victory in the race for Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction. She unseated incumbent Republican Tony Bennett.

Backed by the state’s teachers unions, Ritz ran an effective grassroots campaign that capitalized on educator discontent, anti-testing sentiment and fear schools were losing local control.

She dismissed the idea that her victory was just about defeating Bennett.

“This race has been all about education policy,” she said election night. “Right from the start it’s been about education policy. It wouldn’t matter who was in office. It’s education policy that’s going in the wrong direction for Indiana.”

But even Bennett’s supporters have criticized his style. An endorsement that ran in The Times of Northwest Indiana called Bennett “brash, but extremely effective.”

Bullish. That’s how Indiana University Professor Ashlyn Nelson describes Bennett.

“Bennett had a very clear agenda,” says Nelson, who studies education policy at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “He wanted to reduce achievement gaps among children and he wanted to improve achievement overall for Indiana students, but there was substantial disagreement about the mechanisms he used in order to achieve that change.”

Florida Board Expresses Confidence In Bennett’s Leadership

Superintendent-elect Ritz called Bennett’s defeat a referendum. But just one month after Hoosier voters rejected his brand of education overhaul, the Florida State Board of Education unanimously selected Bennett to run the Sunshine State’s schools.

Before the vote, Florida’s board chairman Gary Chartrand told a story about sitting next to Gov. Daniels at a conference.

“We need someone that has the understanding that no matter how good the policy may be, if it’s not implemented faithfully at the classroom level, then it’s just words. As a teacher, he brings that very special perspective.”
—John Padget, Florida State Board of Education member

“And I asked him about Tony Bennett, and his comment was, ‘I’d walk on coals for that guy,’” says Chartrand. “So I thought that was a pretty strong endorsement. I didn’t have any follow-up questions after that.”

One of Bennett’s last acts as Indiana’s state superintendent was overseeing the passage of controversial new teacher licensing requirements. But he says he doesn’t feel guilty saddling Ritz with implementation of a policy she strongly opposes.

“Local school districts will never crack the code of doing what’s best for children until states address education policy in an aggressive manner,” Bennett said after the December State Board of Education meeting.

He says he’s putting Indiana behind him. He says he’s putting Florida in his windshield.


About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »