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Don't Count Your Chickens Before Elections: Tony Bennett's Defeat in Indiana

Posted by Jim Stergios  November 8, 2012 03:48 PM

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In what you might call a “count your chickens before they hatch” moment, even as late as the morning of Super Tuesday (November 6, 2012, 7:16:15AM EST) Virginia Edwards of EdWeek’s “Leadership Forum” sent an email invitation entitled “Save the Date: Road Maps to Common Core Success in March 2013.”

I invite you to attend Road Maps to Common Core Success. This Education Week Leadership Forum is taking place in Indianapolis, IN on March 11, 2013 and in White Plains, NY on March 21, 2013. At this day-long event, you will hear from state and district leaders, education experts in, and other colleagues on their common core implementations, and discover and share new ideas on curricula, teacher training, and assessment.

For those attending in Indianapolis on March 11, you'll meet Dr. Tony Bennett, Indiana state superintendent of public instruction, who will discuss how his state has built the common core into a comprehensive education reform agenda.

That was pretty much par for the course for EdWeek and for Tony Bennett. EdWeek has long been funded by the Gates Foundation and sponsors any number of forums that support the Foundation's priorities. Superintendent Bennett made it his business to talk up Common Core wherever possible, often arguing against facts (Indiana's state standards were superior to the Common Core standards, but he repeatedly posited the opposite.) He was a regular at legislative events, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (a forum for conservative state lawmakers to discuss issues and debate model legislation). Such meetings matter on a national basis because Republicans control the majority of governorships (30 of 50) and state legislative chambers. At ALEC meetings in November 2011 and spring 2012, he provided the defense for national standards and tests.

There's one problem. He lost his re-election bid on Tuesday. At the end of the summer few imagined he might lose. As EdWeek’s Andrew Ujifusa noted election night

Democrat Glenda Ritz, backed by the state teachers' union, has knocked off a big-time figure in the education policy world, Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett. As of about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, the word spread that Bennett began giving his concession speech.

Bennett’s concession speech is here.

Ritz hung the use of national standards and national tests to evaluate teachers around Bennett's neck. Like other commentators, in his reporting, Ujifusa overstates the opposition to the aspects of Governor Mitch Daniels and Bennett’s agenda in favor of choice and charter schools (“This has to be a major blow for charter, school choice, and the general 'education reform' community.”).

The fact is that while Bennett faced an onslaught of angry teachers, the numbers point to anger among his base over his vocal support for and adoption of the national standards and tests. Activists note that it was “the prime issue among his base.”

Bennett's loss was not, as Diane Ravitch is suggesting, a rejection of choice and market forces in education. As Erin Tuttle, one of the key local activist moms in Indiana, argues:

I live in Indiana and am close to the issue. I'll tell you why Bennett lost. It wasn't the idea of choice or free markets, it was the crippling effect of the Common Core straight jacket on these ideas. Bennett's allegiance to ObamaCore is what undid him. Hoosiers like the idea of school choice but only with truly free market forces, not those with nationalized standards and curriculum-shaping federal tests.

And:

Only a difference of curriculums, methods, philosophies, teachers and student achievement make school choice real and Hoosiers know that. Bennett lost because he didn't listen to the people, parents, teachers and legislators alike. He just didn't do the bidding of his people. Other common core federal mandate-supporting politicians should beware.

Here's the electoral evidence. Other Indiana school reform candidates won. As RiShawn Biddle suggests even within Indiana,

One cannot fully surmise Bennett’s defeat as a harbinger of things to come for the school reform movement, both in Indiana and the nation at large. As seen in Indianapolis, where three reform-oriented candidates have gained seats on the board of the worst-performing district in the Midwest outside of Detroit in spite of the opposition of the NEA affiliate there (and that of failed school leader Eugene White, who has presided over IPS’ continuing decline), reformers can win elections.

From a friend:

At first glance, it looks like the anti-CCSSI vote played a major role in Bennett’s loss. [Bennett’s] vote total lagged Romney and Pence and was only slightly higher than Obama’s:

Romney 1,339,931
Pence 1,207,212
Bennett 1,107,767
Obama 1,079,556

And Ritz got more votes (she received 1,246,201) than Pence and President Obama. This tells me that anti-Common Core conservatives who voted for Romney and Pence not only refused to vote for Bennett but actually voted for Ritz. I have a hard time believing that these (likely GOP) voters were voting against Bennett’s other reforms.

Any elected education official who backs CCSSI in a red state should be extremely concerned about these results.

And he's right. As StateImpact, a collaboration of local public media and NPR notes:

Electorally, Bennett’s share of the vote slipped significantly from 2008 in several key counties where other Republicans (Romney, Pence, Mourdock) won.

See StateImpact's map here and consider this:

  • Losses on home turf. Bennett not only saw his share of the vote in Allen County slip by 7 percentage points — he lost Allen County, the home of Fort Wayne. Pence won this county by 12. Romney won it by 17.
  • 10+ percentage point drops. Despite solid Romney victories in all of these counties, Bennett saw huge drops in: Jay (–10.1 percentage points), Tipton (–11.1), Scott (–11.7), Huntington (–12.3), Rush (–13.0), Adams (–13.2), Montgomery (–17.2) and Wabash (–17.4) counties this election from his 2008 totals.

In a very personal piece, Rick Hess bemoaned Bennett’s loss (“In Indiana, all-world superintendent Tony Bennett lost last night – 53 to 47. I’d like to find an eloquent way to say this but I’m a simple guy: Bennett is a stud.”). Hess gets some of the storyline right, noting that there was

[F]rustration among Tea Party conservatives that Bennett was championing an initiative that they've come to see as an Obama administration initiative (with its own derogatory name, "Obamacore"). One needs only to peruse conservative publications or e-mail blasts to realize how deeply this view has taken hold.

But Rick is wrong on two fronts. In red state Indiana opposition to school choice had little to do with it; nor can you blame Bennett’s loss on the Obama administration's “politiciz[ing] the Common Core and, in so doing,… making it dangerous for elected Republicans in red states to support it.”

That reminds me of the scene in the Godfather series where Michael Corleone strolls with Kay after a long absence, courting her, and discussing his father’s “business.” She notes that his is not a business, it is controlled violence and murder, so unlike politics. Michael stops her short, “Now, who’s being naïve, Kay.”

The fact is that Common Core has been politically and financially driven from DC from the beginning. State participation has been window dressing, as have been public comments. How else would states have been convinced to go along with it except for the lure of federal funds, coordinated funds from allied foundations, and the promises of waivers? With the mediocre quality of the national standards and the as-yet undefined national tests and proficiency levels, there was no other way for Common Core advocates to convince states to go along.

The Obama administration did not “surprise” Bennett with this approach. He knew about it from day one, supported it and talked it up around the country. I know, because I and many other others debated him on just these points.

Does Bennett’s defeat portend big challenges for Common Core? I think Tom Vander Ark, a veteran of I can't count how many reform efforts and a big Common Core supporter, is right when he tweets:

Tom Vander Ark ‏@tvanderark RT @educationweek: Blog: Tony Bennett Says #CommonCore in Jeopardy in Indiana http://bit.ly/YYTDLO #edpolicy #bummer

But it goes beyond Indiana. After the (forced) departure of Utah’s school superintendent Larry Shumway, Bennett’s loss is a signal that in most red states Common Core faces a rough road forward.

And, of course, the electoral outcomes in Georgia and Washington state, where charter schools got a huge boost, make clear that the school choice argument can now be won through a referendum--the popular vote. Thanks to union muscle, that was unheard of until recently .

One final consideration. Biddle makes an extremely important point regarding choice as he describes the future of reform in Indiana: While Ritz's victory may make her want to slow down the pace of choice reforms, the fact is that they are bigger than her or Bennett. They have broad popular, legislative and gubernatorial support.

Ritz won’t likely be able to roll back any of Bennett’s efforts. Why? Because there is still the presence of longtime reformers such as former state senator Teresa Lubbers — who now heads the state’s higher education commission, a key player in spurring overhaul of education since the days of her predecessor and partner-in-reform, Stan Jones — Robert Behning (who chairs the state house’s education committee), and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar, who sits on the powerful Education Roundtable with other longtime reform advocates. There’s also the presence of former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson, whose Mind Trust is the leading force for centrist Democrat reformers in the Hoosier State, and the efforts of Peterson’s successor, Greg Ballard, in the area of authorizing charters and pushing for IPS’s overhaul. The lesson for reformers is clear: Reformers can weather election defeats if they build strong, diverse, and (contrary to the argument of American Enterprise Institute honcho Rick Hess, and Democrats for Education Reform cofounder Whitney Tilson's statement last year that "only Democrats have a good chance of persuading other Democrats to move on" reform) bipartisan coalitions.

As Bennett was losing, a pro-choice governor was elected, and super-majorities for choice forces were achieved in the state house of representatives and the state senate:

The 37-13 Republican majority in the chamber was decided Wednesday when Republican incumbent [editorial note: opponent of Common Core and proponent of school choice] Scott Schneider emerged victorious in his north side Indianapolis district, holding off a challenge by Democrat Tim DeLaney.

This is the strength of state-based reform over the stuff that passes for reform coming out of Washington, DC. Solid reform efforts are comprehensive, covering choice, standards, teacher quality, accountability and, yes, funding. They are advanced through real political processes that are public and often involve fights that are resolved in state legislative bodies. They are not built on personalities. The cult of personality reforms touted by Washington insiders are tired. They usually involve some Superman or Superwoman, and they often don’t last past the Super departure. Real reform is hard-won but runs far deeper.

Just look at Massachusetts. The efforts to undo even some of the basic pillars of our reforms have not yet won the day. And that is because they were crafted with Rs and Ds at the table, debated over years, and while people carp and do inflict damage to the integrity of the reforms, they have had a hard time undoing the basic pillars put into place in 1993. That’s because the reform was bigger than any one person.

I like Tony Bennett. But his loss was his own doing. As a friend noted,

For all the positive things [he] did, he also split [the reform movement in his state] by accepting and defending federal control of curriculum standards and testing. If this sends a signal to other Republican officials at the state level that Common Core is dangerous to their support among the base, then some good will come out of this.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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