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Indiana's State Schools Chief Reflects on Election Defeat

By Sean Cavanagh

Washington

Indiana state schools chief Tony Bennett's rise within the education policy world was swift. On Nov. 6 came a sudden fall.

Bennett, a Republican who helped lead the successful push for his state's adoption of a raft of far-reaching, mostly conservative-leaning laws affecting education—in support of vouchers, stricter forms of teacher evaluation, charter schools, among other issues—was defeated in his bid for re-election by Democratic challenger Glenda Ritz.

Bennett spoke Tuesday with Education Week at the Foundation for Excellence in Education's annual conference, an event organized by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and shared his thoughts on the loss at the polls, and what the future holds.

Bennett, a former teacher, principal, and local schools superintendent elected in 2008, attributed his election loss to his opponent's success in drawing support from various school subgroups—not just teachers' unions, with whom he clashed— each of whom had a specific beef with one or more of the policies he backed.

"It was a campaign against Tony Bennett," he said. "We did a lot of things. All the right public policies. And our opposition successfully attached my face to those."

"They successfully targeted every constituency that opposed any policy I had," the Indiana official added. "If superintendents and school boards were against vouchers, they went to [them] and made sure they were against vouchers. If teachers were struggling with the educator effectiveness legislation we passed, they talked about rolling that back. In the conservative circles, we strongly supported the common core" and so his opponent was able to draw support from people critical of those standards, he said.

Ritz, a teacher praised for her classroom skills, had accused Bennett of promoting an agenda that was far too focused on standardized testing, and ignoring the concerns of educators about how they were evaluated, among other concerns.

In his keynote address at the conference, Bush heaped praise on Bennett, arguing that the Indiana official had selflessly put political concerns aside in pushing for sweeping and controversial changes in Hoosierland. (Bennett, like many Republican state officials, has said Bush's work as Florida governor influenced his thinking on school policy.)

While some conservatives, like Bush, favor the common core standards, others are skeptical, regarding the academic expectations as a top-heavy usurpation of local control of schools.

Bennett said his backing of the common core "wasn't the deciding factor" in his election loss, though he acknowledged it cost him votes.

"It eroded some of our base support, there's no question," he said. " I got very direct emails from hard-right voters, saying, 'If you do not denounce the common core, we won't support you.' "

Bennett, who is 52, has previously said that the 2012 campaign would be his last race for elected office, and he added that he's sticking to that pledge now.

But he also told Education Week that he wants to work on education issues, and he hasn't ruled out taking another job in government, either as a state schools superintendent outside of Indiana, or in another capacity. (His four children are grown, so he said leaving Indiana is more feasible than it once might have been.) He said he's "had some discussions" about those opportunities.

"I've said many times, I have an addiction," he said. "It's called driving ed reform policy. It's my drug of choice."

There has been speculation that Bennett might be a candidate to serve as Florida's next education commissioner (see this report in the Miami Herald.)

Bennett said he has not applied for the Florida job, and he declined to say if he has been asked to do so. But he described the position as an important, and potentially appealing one.

Florida has been "the national leader" in innovative education policy for years, he said. "That, in and of itself, makes Florida the stage to drive the agenda...Anyone who does this would think Florida's an attractive place."

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