The new status quo education alliance

Education pundits continue to debate why Indiana’s reforming school chief, Tony Bennett, was defeated at the polls. There are two theories, and it looks like they’re both right.

One theory is that Bennett was taken down by common core opponents. According to this scenario, many of the votes for Democrat Glenda Ritz, who was strongly backed by the teacher’s union, were directed at the common core and not Bennett’s support for educational choice, including charters and vouchers for poor kids.

As Jim Stergios posits on his Boston Globe blog:

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.”

On his Education Week blog, Rich Hess mourns Bennett’s loss but points to the same alliance between common core opponents and teachers unions:

In Indiana, all-world superintendent Tony Bennett lost last night–53 to 47. I’d like to find an eloquent way to say it, but I’m a simple guy: Bennett is a stud. He’s also a good friend, and I’m not even going to try to pretend to be objective or dispassionate here. He’s smart, passionate, and relentless. And, given that folks are likely to be clamoring for his services (including the state of Florida, which is desperately seeking a new chief), it’s safe to say Bennett will be just fine.

Okay. Now, let’s talk about why a rock-ribbed Republican state chief lost in deep red Indiana. (In Indiana, the state superintendent is elected and not appointed.) After all, Mitt Romney won the state by 10 points. There are two reasons. One, the unions painted a target on Bennett for his unapologetic support for school choice, accountability, and the rest. That’s understandable enough. The second: the Common Core. More specifically, frustration 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 wait, Common Core enthusiasts will protest: “This is a state-led effort.” Well, maybe that’s how it looks from one angle. When you talk to Republican legislators in red states, however, many think Obama and Secretary Duncan have their grubby thumbprints all over the Common Core. The administration has pushed it through Race to the Top, the NCLB waivers, and their “ESEA blueprint”; they’ve championed it in public remarks; and they’ve patted themselves on the back for all this in the Democratic National Platform. They’ve turned a sensible idea into something that conservatives now flag as another example of Obama-era federal overreach. Bennett himself repeatedly expressed that exact concern and tried to tell the administration to please back the hell off; they didn’t listen. Because Bennett thinks the Common Core is the right thing to do, he held fast nonetheless–and that drew the ire of onetime conservative backers, who’ve now lashed out in frustration.

Blog readers know that I think common core opponents have strong arguments . . . but this new alliance is exactly what has scared me about the groundswell of opposition to the common core. It’s very easy – scarily easy – for supporters of local control and locally-driven reform efforts to be shanghaied by defenders of the status quo. I’d be a lot happier with the opposition to the common core it Utah, for example, if it were accompanied by a push to improve state educational standards, or by more concern for how poorly minority kids are performing in the state. Opposition to the common core doesn’t have to translate into complacency with the status quo. But clearly it can – and has.

It will be interesting to see what happens now in Indiana. Republicans actually gained seats in the state legislature, and the voters just elected another Republican governor who largely supports Bennett’s reforms. The voucher and charter laws remain on the books, despite the new school superintendent’s vocal opposition to these laws. Stay tuned.


  1. Dr. Christine Jax

    I can relate to Mr. Bennett’s experience. I am a former Commissioner of Education for Minnesota, but I now live in Florida. I ran for a seat on the Palm Beach County School board (11th largest in the nation) and was defeated 52% – 48% — a similar margin to his. My opponent had the backing of the teachers’ union, and they worked hard for him. They also worked against me and my support for charter schools, teacher compensation reform, and high stakes assessments. While many citizens supported my platform, it is difficult to rally people the same way a union can rally their teachers using scare tactics. In addition to boots on the streets, the teachers’ union also got the police and firefighter unions to work against me. We have to get better at mobilizing voters around these crucial issues. If we do not prepare our children for jobs and for job creation, we will lose our level of GDP and fall behind China. That much is clear.

    • Yak_Herder

      Dr Jax,

      I gotta ask: Isn’t mentioning the threat of falling behind China itself a scare tactic? 🙂

      China has more “gifted and talented” students than we have total students. India is right on their heals and have momentum in their favor.

      Today’s “exceptional” will be tomorrow’s “competitive”.

  2. howard beale

    There is an assumption by Bennet and the good Dr. above that teachers have no clue what will work in education and if you have the word doctor before your name you obviously do. Maybe the teacher unions don’t support these candidates because they are on to something. Just because on is a “Dr.” doesn’t mean one possesses common sense or ideas that will work. Enough of the high stakes testing. These tests don’t test anything of merit. They are merely bubble tests or computerized versions of them. Teacher compensation just means paying experienced teachers less forcing them out so they can be replaced by younger teachers for less money who will then quit when they can’t stand the profession anymore than repeat cycle. Charter schools, well some work and some don’t. I wish some of these parents would work passionately for their neighborhood public schools rather than giving up and running to the charters oh well. Finally, I must tell the good Dr. that while unions may oppose or support a candidate, teachers are still independent in their thinking. They are not sheep or union stooges. Perhaps assuming such alienated teachers to your campaign. Also, some parents actually support teachers. Your reform ideas probably didn’t have merit. If they did, you and Bennett, would have won it at the ballot.

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