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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.

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How Sec. Duncan Helped the Teachers Unions Take Out Tony Bennett

By Rick Hess — November 07, 2012 3 min read
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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.

If Hoosiers wanted Glenda Ritz rather than Bennett, that’s cool. But Bennett would have beaten Ritz solidly (despite her staunch support from teacher unions eager to take him out) if the basketball-coaching, folksy, well-funded, native son had merely run as well as Romney. And exit polling and local accounts suggest that the reason he didn’t can pretty much be chalked up to conservative angst over the Common Core. Intentionally or not, the Obama administration has politicized the Common Core and, in so doing, is making it dangerous for elected Republicans in red states to support it. And, trust me, a lot of GOP state school board members, education committee members, and state chiefs are aware of what happened to Bennett. As Scott Elliott noted today in the Indianapolis Star, “It’s hard to overstate just how big an upset Glenda Ritz’s victory over State Superintendent Tony Bennett is. Bennett is a national darling of the school reform movement. He had tons of money, much of it from deep-pocketed big names in school reform from around the country. He had a long list of accomplishments in four years.”

Administration officials can deny all this as much as they like (and can count on the complicit silence of the NGA, CCSSO, and other allies reluctant to alienate the administration), and they can point out that Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and “Republican-ish” Democrats like Joel Klein embrace the Common Core. But, whether they admit it or not, the administration has done much to make the Core toxic on the right. And we’re only just beginning to see the consequences.

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