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Why was Indiana reformer Tony Bennett ousted?

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Less than two months ago, state Superintendent Tony Bennett stood on a stage with Gov. Mitch Daniels as a loud standing ovation washed over the two smiling men from a packed house for Bennett’s latest state-of-education address.

What seemed like something of a coronation turned instead into a swan song for Bennett, who was swept out of office after one term on Tuesday.

Bennett was supposed to be part of Daniels’ legacy in Indiana. It was Daniels, frustrated with the incremental style of fellow Republican Sue Ellen Reed, who went looking for an ally to challenge her. He soon found Bennett, who looked like an unlikely choice — a guy who got into education to coach basketball but became a principal and had served less than two years as superintendent in his southern Indiana district.

Bennett, however, was strongly ideologically aligned with Daniels. He was a true believer in standards-driven, free market-based education reform and surprised many people by emerging as an effective champion for conservatively-flavored education reform and a solid political player who got things done.

By 2011, the previously frustrated Daniels finally had the pieces in place to push a major education reform agenda — a strong ally in Bennett as state superintendent and huge Republican majorities in the legislature. Change came fast and furiously — a new voucher program, an expansion of charter schools, limits on teacher unions, testing-linked teacher evaluation, a new third grade reading requirement and the first-ever execution of a state law allowing state takeover of troubled schools. It was like everything Daniels ever wanted during his eight years in office he managed to get done in two years with Bennett.

That may have been too much, too fast for Indiana.

In politics, it pays to remember that you need to make sure regular folks are behind you when you push for big changes. Bennett’s biggest miscalculation may have been waiting too long to try to build a wide coalition of teachers — not just collect a few like minded ones — to buy into his approach or, at a minimum, to at least trust him enough to give his ideas a chance.

Teacher mistrust was the biggest arrow that felled him on Tuesday. Consider a few anecdotal examples.

About a month ago, a very conservative friend asked me several questions about Bennett’s challenger, Glenda Ritz. He was considering voting for Ritz, he said, because his equally conservative wife hated Bennett and was lobbying him to join her in voting against Bennett. My friend was not inclined to vote for a Democrat, but admitted he was wavering and wanted to learn more about Ritz. I heard this kind of story from more than one conservative — that a teacher who was a spouse or relative was pushing hard for them to support Ritz.

Then on election day I was talking with another friend — a young woman in her 20s — who also brought up the Bennett-Ritz race. The friend told me she didn’t have strong feelings about the candidates but voted for Ritz because her close friend was a teacher and said she should vote against Bennett.

It appears there were enough of these kinds of conversations across the state to ultimately play a role in dooming Bennett’s re-election despite huge advantages he had in terms of money and name recognition.

Teachers long have complained about the way Bennett talked about them, that they felt he was blaming teachers for all the state’s education woes. For example, when Ritz said during the campaign that Bennett was testing obsessed, his answer to me was to say: “Our problem is not assessment. Our problem is instruction.” A lot of teachers took that personally.

But it’s not just that teachers didn’t like his attitude. Many of them also are reeling from many of the changes Bennett helped put in place. Some have told me they don’t like the new teacher evaluation system, which they fear won’t be fair and might cost them money in lower raises. Others worried that Bennett’s overt championing of charter schools and private schools would eventually lead to more state aid for those schools and less for traditional schools.

Those sorts of perceptions, it seems, mobilized teachers, and the election’s outcome suggests when teachers are energized they can affect elections.

So Tony Bennett is out of a job.

This story comes to us courtesy of The Indianapolis Star. Reproduction is not permitted.

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