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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Angry Moderate Reformer, Part I: The Rise and Fall of Tony Bennett, and The One Lesson We’ll Almost Certainly Ignore

By Guest Blogger — August 12, 2013 6 min read
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Note: Jonathan Plucker, a Professor at the University of Connecticut, is guest posting this week.

I appreciate having the opportunity to pinch hit again for Rick. I planned to talk about the education-industrial complex, what other countries are doing to reform schools, and the welcome change in attitudes toward neo-liberal education policies. But then, as I was starting to put these posts together, all hell broke loose in Indiana and Florida.

Most scandal commentary has been reasonable, but those perspectives strike me as lacking, because, well, most of those commentators weren’t there. For the last 10 years, as the director of a research center, I worked with elected officials and with the state’s education professional organizations in the realm of education policy. The Tony Bennett I came to know is very different from the person depicted in the media and policy circles, both the fawning profiles and over-the-top criticism. I could write a book on the lessons learned, but here’s the abridged version:

Both sides are forgetting the Indiana context. Dr. Suellen Reed, Tony’s predecessor, learned that she had lost support within her party for a fifth term via Gov. Daniels’ press conference announcing his support for Tony’s nomination. That story may be apochryphal, but it quickly made the rounds and offended many, given Dr. Reed’s popularity and her status as one of the top Republican vote-getters during the “wilderness years” when Democrats controlled state politics for nearly two decades. People forget that the governor was polling in the 30s at that point and had many enemies within public education, enemies that Tony inherited. At the same time, parties returning to power after a generation often have a “reform wish list,” and they tend to be uncompromising at first. Battle lines were drawn early and firmly.

The haters emerged early and never relented. I was one of them. Within days of his election, rumors about Tony, many scandalous, began making their rounds among educators. My center began experiencing icy relations with the Indiana DOE. After a few frosty months, a mutual friend sat down with us and basically told us to get along. To my surprise, I liked the guy - he’s funny, smart, loves his family. We didn’t agree on everything, but he was open to debate, and from that point forward, we talked regularly. Although we gave each other a second chance, others weren’t so forgiving. I attended several meetings where Tony reached out to stakeholders, soliciting input or correcting misconceptions in the department’s positions. But his foes often left those meetings and publicly repeated the misconceptions, or declared that the department was not open to input. The unyielding polarization became apparent. Some stakeholders worked to bridge the gaps, but they were the minority.

He absolutely, positively asked about specific schools during the creation of the new accountability system. I was part of a working group (with a principal and a superintendent) that developed the elementary/middle school accountability model. Given educators’ oft-spoken desire to improve the state’s confusing accountability system and get out from under the mess created by NCLB, helping improve the situation seemed like a no-brainer. IDOE staff eventually took our model in a different direction, one I didn’t agree with. A couple months later, purely by chance, Tony and I were seated next to each other on a flight. I pulled out the necessary data and walked Tony through an alternative model. He listened carefully, asked good questions, then said something along the lines of, “Let’s check this model with data from schools we know are good.” In the end, we ran around two dozen schools through the model. Yes, Christel House was one of them, but the vast majority were traditional public schools. It was meant to be a validity check, and I buy that justification for why certain schools were “targeted” in the offending e-mails. And to Tony’s credit, he went to the state board and advocated for my proposal.

People say they want elected officials who aren’t politicians ... but they don’t react well when they get them. Tony’s nascent political skills hurt him badly early on, reinforcing perceptions that he was an apparatchik and bull in a china shop. As a friend noted after hearing Tony speak, “Tony’s a good guy, but he can make a compliment sound like an insult.” Early on, that was certainly true, but eventually his (and his team’s) political skills improved significantly. But with the pressure on and an unexpected result popping up in the school grades, their political inexperience shone through, and those e-mails are just ugly to read.

Resigning was the right call. Coincidentally, the day before the resignation, my father and I discussed the San Diego mayor’s inexplicable refusal to resign. We noted that “honorable resignation” in the face of scandal has largely disappeared from American public life. Tony’s situation had become a distraction and huge impediment to one of his signature initiatives: the overhaul of the Florida A-F accountability system (full disclosure: I’d recently been contracted to consult on the revision of their system). These systems simply must be transparent, and the public has to have faith in the integrity of the results. The scandal ensured that wasn’t going to happen in Florida, and stepping down was the right call.

Indiana charter schools and their allies have gotten a free pass in this affair. “We never asked for a grade change” is disingenuous, given the enormous pressure the state charter school association and Indiana Chamber of Commerce exerted to change the proposed system in ways that would favor charters (which, let’s face it, was their job). This lobbying was successful, and the resulting model at the elementary/middle school level was rather pro-charter. A great deal of this is public record: Any related hearing featured those groups strongly criticizing the models under consideration. Some of the private discussions became very heated, and my pet theory is that rapidly cooling support on the right due to the Common Core and the charter accountability issues was as big a factor in Tony’s defeat as the much-lauded grassroots organizing of teachers.

The biggest take-away from Tony’s five years on the national stage is a reinforcement of something I learned nearly 20 years ago, during the Clinton administration. A pundit noted that focusing enmity on one elected official is almost always counterproductive. That’s easy to forget in today’s polarized political context, despite the frequent reminders (see Presidents Bush and Obama). And Dr. Bennett’s situation is another example of this: When he was first elected in 2008, the Democrats held 17 of 50 seats in the state senate and had a four seat majority in the house. But the elation over his fall is surely tempered by the fact that Democrats now hold only 13 seats in the senate and have a 38 seat deficit in the house, surrendering super majorities in both chambers, with a more conservative governor heading the executive branch. Most of Indiana’s reforms are arguably more secure than they were before election day.

Congrats, you got rid of the great ed reform satan for good! Now what?

--Jonathan Plucker

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.