Indiana public schools are struggling under the leadership of Tony Bennett, superintendent of public instruction. His unproven experiment in school choice and privatization has strained local districts at the very time theyve needed the support and resources of a strong Indiana Department of Education.
Fortunately, his challenger, Glenda Ritz, demonstrates the skill and passion to help all students and recognizes the states civic health and economy depend on strong public schools. Her experience in communicating a classroom perspective to legislators is sorely needed as educators grapple with a host of new laws and regulations.
Indiana enjoyed almost 24 years of steady, collaborative effort to improve public education under Republicans H. Dean Evans and Suellen Reed, but Bennetts election four years ago marked an end to the partnership among policymakers, educators, parents and the business community. The noteworthy improvement Indiana schools have made in recent years, including higher graduation rates, is the result of the foundation Evans and Reed set.
Rather than follow their example, Bennett cleaned house, replacing experienced educators with a DOE staff whose frequent turnover has left school districts struggling to interpret rules and requirements. He took advantage of GOP majorities to push an expansive legislative agenda, including the nations most expansive voucher program. Before its effects are even known, he is looking to extend it, eliminating the restriction that vouchers go only to students who first attend public school.
While enthusiastically promoting vouchers and charter schools, Bennett has expanded state control of local schools and exercised authority to hand them over to for-profit operators. Through the rule-making process, he has weakened the licensing requirements for teachers and administrators and now champions the national Common Core academic standards – less rigorous than Indianas highly acclaimed standards – and a new test to replace ISTEP+.
Also troubling are his ties with out-of-state donors and corporate interests. He spent much of 2011 traveling the country, often at the expense of groups looking to privatize schools. His campaign donors include wealthy school-choice proponents. Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton gave him $200,000, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg contributed $40,000. Some of the largest have come from groups backed by hedge-fund managers. Bennetts campaign chest is nearing $1.5 million. Compare that to the $39,000 Reed had raised at the end of her 2004 re-election contest. Ritz has raised about $100,000 to compete against Bennett.
What she lacks in fundraising prowess, Ritz makes up for in experience. A library media specialist for Washington Township schools in Marion County, she is one of just 155 Indiana educators certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, considered the gold standard in teacher certification.
Ritz proposes more local input in policy promulgated by the state. She said she would begin with a comprehensive assessment of school needs, including curriculum and technology.
DOE is going to be bottom up instead of top down, Ritz said.
She also pledges to support early learning and to stop increased reliance on standardized testing, now misappropriated to paint public schools, districts, students and teachers as failures. The inaccurate depiction doesnt serve the state in attracting jobs or retaining young families.
Voters should compare the leadership styles and results of a politically ambitious superintendent versus his two widely respected predecessors. Ritz promises to serve more in the mold of Evans and Reed; shes the easy choice for Indianas top education post.