Perhaps the most surprising turn of events for education election watchers was the news that Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a Republican, lost his race to Democratic challenger, Glenda Ritz, despite a big-time advantage in campaign funds. But in an interview this morning, Bennett told me that he wasn’t completely surprised by the outcome himself.
The reason, Bennett said, is that he knew the Indiana teachers’ unions would be “formidable foes” in any election fight, and that his policy initiatives in the last four years would generate strong opposition from some in the state education establishment. Bennett is a big national voice on issues prioritized by so-called “education reform” advocates, but his education stardom wasn’t enough to satisfy Hoosier voters, who gave Ritz 52 percent of the vote and Bennett 48 percent.
“We worked our rear ends off for almost a year to prepare for last night,” said Bennett, referring to the fight he knew was coming from groups like the Indiana State Teachers Association.
How does Bennett think Ritz pulled off what can fairly be described as a big upset? The Common Core State Standards plays a role. Bennett argued that Ritz—who is skeptical of the common core—used the standards to take away conservative voters who otherwise favored him. Many Republicans are critical of the common core because they say it smacks of too much federal involvement. Bennett, a big champion of the common standards, also said Ritz’s victory could jeopardize Indiana’s leading role in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers, one of two state consortia working on assessments tied to the standards.
“I have some very serious concerns about the future of that program,” he said of the testing consortia. And when it came to common standards, Bennett said, “She did a very good job of appealing to the strong conservative base who had problems with the common core. So that’s another issue obviously.”
The fate of a wide-reaching voucher program he championed is also up in the air, Bennett argued. He essentially said that Ritz could use a death-by-regulation strategy and make it so difficult for private companies to operate schools in Indiana that they’ll simply avoid the state, thereby reducing options for parents when it comes to schools.
But the state’s policy regarding third-grade literacy requirements is probably more protected, because much of it runs through the state board, members of which are due to be appointed by newly elected GOP Gov. Mike Pence, Bennett also said.
So what’s next for Bennett? One possibility is that he could be a natural fit for Florida’s education commissioner job. He’s a member of Chiefs for Change, which is affiliated with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the policy outfit overseen by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a fellow Republican. In the interview, Bennett definitively said he wants to remain involved in education policy in Indiana or elsewhere.
“Driving education reform policy is probably my drug of choice,” he said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.