Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett, a Republican who implemented major changes to teacher evaluations and school accountability since taking office in 2008, was unseated Tuesday by Democratic Glenda Ritz, among the state-level electoral outcomes nationwide with implications for education policy.
Bennett's defeat came on a day when voters in Georgia approved creation of a new commission to approve charter schools, Maryland voters backed its version of the so-called DREAM Act, and high-profile fiscal and school reform measures made their appearance on the ballot in a number of states, including California and Idaho.
Bennett has a high national profile among self-identified "education reform" advocates. His actions as Indiana chief included ramping up emphasis on student test scores, implementing state takeovers of struggling schools, and working closely with fellow Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels to expand charter school options for parents. But he ran afoul of teachers unions, and Ritz made it a point in her campaign to blast Bennett for, in her view, obsessing over test scores and ignoring the needs of students and educators.
Bennett raised much more money than Ritz, but he conceded before 11 p.m. Tuesday night. Ritz will be working with a new Republican governor and a legislature dominated by Republicans.
In North Carolina, Superintendent June Atkinson avoided the fate of her fellow incumbent by winning a third term, beating Republican candidate John Tedesco. Atkinson is a veteran, but it looks like she'll have to work with a GOP-dominated legislature and a new Republican governor, Pat McCrory.
Elsewhere, it looked as though Republican Kirsten Baesler was ready to become the next superintendent in North Dakota based on most precincts reporting, beating out Democrat Tracy Potter.
On the ballot measure front around the country, charter advocates notched a win in Georgia with approval of a new state commission that would approve charter schools. That was a blow to state Superintendent John Barge, who opposed it by saying it would hurt funding for traditional public schools, much to the irritation of his fellow Republicans in the state.
Maryland voters, meanwhile, approved a measure that grants in-state, two- and four-year college tuition to undocumented immigrants, provided they meet certain conditions. State lawmakers had approved such a law, but opponents got it placed on the ballot for a popular vote.
But Florida voters soundly rejected Amendment 8 to its state constitution that would, in practical terms, have permitted publicly-funded vouchers to be used at religious schools. Religious groups and prominent state Republicans, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, supported it, but those concerned about the separation of church and state who were opposed to it appear to be the winners.
In South Dakota, voters soundly rejected a law passed this year (backed by GOP Gov. Dennis Daugaard) that would have instituted merit pay based in part on test scores for teachers, and that would have eliminated state-sponsored tenure for teachers.
Missouri voters also rejected a measure to increase state taxes on tobacco to provide more money for K-12 education, while Arizona voters declined to extend a 1-cent sales tax increase set to expire in 2013 through Proposition 204, which would have provided at least $625 million annually for schools.
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30, which would raise taxes on the wealthy to fund K-12 education, received the approval of voters, and therefore likely spared schools $4.8 billion in mid-year cuts. Another measure in California, Proposition 32, which unions said would have greatly curtailed their political influence due to the prohibition it placed on using money automatically deducted from employee pay for political purposes, was voted down. In Washington State, Initiative 1240, which would allow charter schools in the state after three previously unsuccessful ballot measures to do so, had a small lead in the polls Wednesday morning.
Finally, all three "Luna Laws" in Idaho, named after Superintendent Tom Luna, were headed to defeat with all but 11 of the state's 968 precincts reporting. These laws would have instituted merit pay, restrict collective bargaining, and mandate more technology in classrooms. Losing all three laws, passed in 2011 originally, would be a big blow to Luna who, like Bennett, has a big national profile.
Photo: Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Glenda Ritz celebrates after defeating Republican Tony Bennett during an election night event in Indianapolis. (Michael Conroy/AP)