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Indiana Superintendent's Defeat: What Role for Common Core?

In the education world, some of the biggest news of the election last week came with the defeat of Indiana schools superintendent Tony Bennett. In the wake of that development, people who watch common-standards news closely have been parsing the role that initiative had in Bennett's ouster.

Our own coverage of that contest, (here, here, and here) by my colleague Andrew Ujifusa, discusses key issues in addition to the common core that contributed to Bennett's defeat, including his stances on vouchers and teacher evaluations. But some of the common standards' most vocal opponents argue that it was the standards, clear and simple, that proved fatal for the Indiana schools chief.

In a recent column, the executive director of the Pioneer Institute, Jim Stergios, detailed the signs that the common core was what did Bennett in. He points to the resounding victory of a contender for the school board in Fort Wayne as an echo of that same sentiment.

Glenah Jehl's education platform pressed for school choice, high standards, top-notch curriculum, and excellent teachers. But she also argued for local control of education, casting the common-core standards and No Child Left Behind as "ineffective federal initiatives" that don't deserve support. She also argued against "teaching to the test," something that has resonated with many ever since No Child Left Behind mandated testing more than a decade ago, and resonates again now, as two state consortia design assessments for the common standards using $360 million in federal Race to the Top funds.

Stergios argues that Bennett's defeat wasn't about his "reform" agenda, since the same election swept a pro-school-choice governor and additional pro-school-choice state lawmakers into office. Reform-oriented candidates won three seats on the Indianapolis school board, too, he notes.

Stergios also cites Indiana vote totals in the presidential and gubernatorial races, noting that the triumphant candidate for state superintendent, Glenda Ritz, garnered more votes than either President Obama or newly elected Republican Gov. Mike Pence, a sign, he says, that even some GOP voters who voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and fellow GOPer Pence refused to vote for Bennett, also a Republican. In addition, Bennett lost ground in some Indiana localities where he used to have stronger support, and in which other Republicans won election.

And grass-roots activists can attest to the big role that Bennett's allegiance to the common standards played in his defeat, Stergios argues. He quotes Erin Tuttle, who he describes as a "key local activist mom" in Indiana, as saying: "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."

American Enterprise Institute education wonk and EdWeek blogger Rick Hess noted in his own post that conservatives were getting increasingly fed up with Bennett for championing an initiative they've come to equate with the Obama administration. But for Stergios, that misses the point. Conservatives have been angry, he notes, because they see the common-core initiative as driven by Washington from the git-go. (We've reported on this uneasiness, as well, for quite a while now. Think Race to the Top and NCLB waiver incentives.)

Stergios says it's not just recent events in Indiana that suggest common-core support can be risky. He points to the resignation of Utah schools superintendent Larry Shumway, a common-core backer who faced a good deal of opposition to that initiative in his state. Taken together, those events provide "a signal that in most red states Common Core faces a rough road forward," Stergios wrote.

Stay tuned as the coming months shed more light on how the common core plays out in red states, and in blue ones.

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