The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of Tony Bennett: A reform star’s rise and fall

PHOTO: Photo by Kyle Stokes courtesy of StateImpact Indiana

This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.

In 2011, Tony Bennett was such a national education star as Indiana’s state superintendent that he literally went to Washington, D.C., and walked away with the title Education Reform Idol.

Technically, he accepted the title on behalf of his state, in a quirky contest put on by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington group that advocates for high academic standards and school choice. But Bennett was the star of the show, which was broadcast live online. He playfully mocked rival states Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Florida while vigorously trumpeting changes he helped lead in the Hoosier state.

At the time, Bennett’s national fans could not have imagined that little more than a year later, he would be voted out of office — or that his comeback job, as education commissioner in Florida, would end abruptly after seven months amid charges that he manipulated school grading rules and broke campaign ethics laws during his time in Indiana.

Bennett’s story as an education leader has been one of jarring reversals of fortune, from basketball coach to superintendent, from small-town Indiana to the state capitol, and — most recently — from national prominence to a battle to reclaim his reputation.

A push for change

Bennett spent most of his life in southern Indiana. He was born in Jeffersonville, raised in Clarksville, and went to Catholic schools. He got into coaching basketball and became a science teacher while earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Indiana University Southeast. He later earned a doctorate from Kentucky’s Spalding University.

He became assistant superintendent in New Albany in 2001 and superintendent in Greater Clark County Schools in 2007 before deciding to run for state superintendent in 2008. He was quickly embraced by Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who appeared in television ads with Bennett. During the campaign, Bennett pushed for free market reforms, such as school choice, reducing bureaucracy, and redirecting spending from administration toward classroom instruction. He won 52 percent of the vote over Democrat Richard Wood, who had been superintendent of Lafayette’s Tippecanoe schools.

Bennett quickly set about pushing for greater accountability. He added new factors to the state’s school grading system, including a “growth” measure of students gains on state test results and new data points measuring students’ “college and career readiness.” He warned the state’s lowest-scoring schools that he would invoke a new state law to intervene if they continued to fail for six straight years.

He pushed to use a new test, IREAD3, to assure third graders could read, and prevent those who couldn’t from moving on to fourth grade. By the end of 2010, Bennett also championed the state’s adoption of Common Core standards. Bennett worked with the National Governors Associations and a consortium of states to advocate nationally for the Common Core.

He established new academic goals for the state—90 percent passing the state ISTEP test, 25 percent of high school graduates earning college credit, and a 90 percent high school graduation rate. And to track Indiana’s progress, he placed an electric scoreboard outside his office. Indiana fell short of all three in his four years, but made gains toward each.

National acclaim

Bennett began making powerful friends around the country who were pushing similar reforms elsewhere, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New York’s then school chancellor Joel Klein, and speaking engagements soon followed.

Bennett also increasingly did battle with teachers unions, most notably over the state’s Race to the Top grant application. The state passed on a chance for $250 million in federal aid when Bennett could not get the Indiana State Teachers Association to sign on to the application. Bennett ended the effort when the union’s then-president, Nate Schnellenberger, declined to attend a meeting that Bennett insisted be open to to the public to discuss Bennett’s plan for the grant and why the union was refusing to support it. Schnellenberger dismissed the meeting as a “media circus.”

In 2011, Bennett helped Daniels successfully advocate for a series of major education changes in the legislature, despite strong opposition from unions and Democrats.

One bill established a new private school voucher program, allowing low-income families to redirect tax dollars meant for their children’s public school education toward private-school tuition. The legislature also expanded the authority to “sponsor” charter schools to private universities in an effort to seed more charter schools. (Charter school sponsors open and then oversee the schools.)

Another bill limited teacher union bargaining to just pay and benefits, taking away the right to bargain over work conditions such as class size and after school meeting requirements. Finally, lawmakers approved a fourth major bill requiring an overhaul in Indiana’s teacher evaluation system, requiring annual evaluations, and including student test score growth as one of several factors.

In 2012, Bennett made good on his promise to enforce school accountability, urging the Indiana State Board of Education to take over five schools: four in Indianapolis and one in Gary. The schools had all been given six consecutive F grades by the state. Bennett selected three charter school organizations to run the schools independently, severing them from their school districts.

2012 Election

Bennett prepared to seek reelection with aggressive fundraising. By Election Day, he had raised $1.8 million, five times more than his Democratic opponent, Glenda Ritz. Ritz was an award-winning teacher working as a librarian in Indianapolis’s Washington Township and new to politics. She was also president of her local teachers union and active with the state teacher’s union, ISTA, which funded most of her campaign.

Despite large disparities in money and name recognition, Ritz mounted an aggressive word-of-mouth and social media campaign, relying heavily on teachers, especially those active in unions, to spread the word of her candidacy in their personal and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Ritz argued Bennett’s approach was too dependent on standardized tests, tapping into a growing national backlash against too much testing. She also echoed another national argument that school choice programs like those Bennett championed merely turned schools over to private companies aimed at making profits.

Bennett ran a more traditional campaign, with TV commercials and campaign appearances around the state. He declined Ritz’s offer for a series of debates, agreeing instead to a pair of joint appearances.

The election produced a shocking result when Ritz defeated Bennett with 52 percent of the vote. A shaken Bennett thanked his supporters and took responsibility for the defeat, saying his rhetoric was too blunt at times.

But Bennett soon had another opportunity. He was invited to apply for the post of education commissioner of Florida, an equivalent post to state superintendent, but appointed rather than elected. After false starts with other candidates, Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Bennett.

Email controversy

Bennett’s Florida tenure came to an end almost as quickly as it began when, in July of 2013, Indiana journalists obtained emails written by Bennett and his staff through public records requests. The resulting news stories produced political fallout in both states. In his emails, Bennett raised questions about a state grade that was about to be assigned to a charter school run by a former contributor to his campaign, Christel DeHaan. DeHaan’s Christel House Academy charter school in Indianapolis had a long track record of A grades, but it was about to be assigned a C.

The emails showed that Bennett’s staff began exploring several routes to raising the school’s grade before settling on a rule change for schools with unusual grade level configurations. Christel House served grades K to 10. The new rule exempted the school from being judged on some high school measures, raising Christel House to an A. Twelve other schools statewide also received higher grades. Critics said the emails showed Bennett and his team so favored charter schools he was willing to rig the system to benefit them.

Days later, Bennett resigned in Florida, saying he didn’t want the Indiana controversy to impede school reform efforts in the Sunshine State. Later, consultants selected by Indiana’s Republican legislative leaders reviewed the emails and Bennett’s actions, calling the rule alterations by his office that changed A to F grades “plausible.”

Bennett’s backers suggested Ritz was behind the scandal, accusing her and her staff of mining Bennett’s emails and targeting him. In her first year Ritz repeatedly clashed with Indiana State Board Education over A to F grading and has been working on an overhaul of the grading factors. Ritz’s communications director, David Galvin, later acknowledged discovering the emails and turning them over to the state ethics commission.

The commission later brought charges against Bennett, as a result of the emails. Besides discussing Christel House’s grade change, Bennett and his lieutenants traded messages about his re-election effort. The complaint alleged Bennett illegally used the resources of his state office to support his political campaign.

Bennett’s emails revealed occasional communication about campaign events and activities. Also found on the server where emails were kept were two Republican donor lists. Bennett hired a high-powered legal team for his defense, and won a partial victory. He was found guilty of violating ethics law by a state panel and agreed to pay a $5,000 fine as part of a settlement for spending his work time and office computers and telephones for his campaign. The commission, however, noted Bennett could have avoided even that penalty. Indiana law permits elected officials to campaign from their offices as long as they establish policies allowing it, which Bennett never did.

The ethics commission did not explore the ethical implications of the actions of Bennett or his team regarding the state grading system, accepting the conclusions of the state’s investigation.

In late 2014, there were new revelations that a never-released report on Bennett’s actions suggested he could have faced federal charges, but they never came.

Looking ahead

Since his departure, Bennett’s Republican allies in Indiana have fought to try keep Indiana on the path he blazed. While there have been some changes — lawmakers ordered a rewrite of way test score growth was measured under Bennett, for example — mostly the changes he helped institute have continued.

Bennett’s next move remains to be seen. He moved back to southern Indiana from Florida in 2013, and he is now working as a consultant for ACT, the testing company.

The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.

2016 Indiana governor race

The basics of Eric Holcomb on education: Moving past the policy wars

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The 2016 Republican nominee for Indiana governor Eric Holcomb.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for governor when it comes to education. A more detailed story about Eric Holcomb’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about John Gregg, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

Eric Holcomb has promised to be different from his predecessor when it comes to education if elected governor.

The Republican candidate says he’ll avoid the loud political fights that defined Gov. Mike Pence’s battles with Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

But Holcomb’s education policies are largely in line with Pence’s.

The Republican candidate took Pence’s place on the ballot in July after Pence dropped out of the race to join Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as his vice presidential running mate.

As a result of his late entry into the race, Holcomb’s education policies are less detailed than his opponent, Democrat John Gregg who is making his second run for governor after losing a close race to Pence in 2012.

Holcomb has also never before been elected to public office. So, unlike the former House speaker Gregg, he has little track record of votes or positions on the issues.

But in interviews, Holcomb, 48, has emphasized a desire to work more collaboratively with the next superintendent — Ritz or her Republican opponent, Jennifer McCormick — to try to move on from the many battles between Pence and Ritz.

Holcomb also says he wants a better state test to replace ISTEP, but he has struggled to explain how his vision for the exam would be different from the much maligned test that the state has used in recent years.

Early lessons and role models

Holcomb’s mother was a teacher, so he spent hours at her side when she was grading papers, both at home and after school. He credits her as his earliest example of work ethic and the value of learning.

After graduating Pike High School in Indianapolis and Indiana’s Hanover College, he spent six years in the Navy and then got involved in politics. For the next 20 years, Holcomb worked for Indiana Republicans, but nearly all of his work was out of the public eye.

He started out as an aide to Indiana congressman John Hostettler before first dipping his toe into politics with an unsuccessful run for congress in 2000.

He served as a campaign adviser to Mitch Daniels during Daniels’ first run for governor in 2003 then stayed on, working in the Daniels administration for seven years.

In 2010, Holcomb took over as state Republican Party chairman, a job he held for three years before leaving to become chief of staff to Repbulican U.S. Sen. Dan Coats.

Holcomb attempted his second run for office in 2013 when he ran for his boss’ seat after Coats announced his retirement, but ended up dropping out of that race when Pence offered him the lieutenant governor job in March.

If Holcomb wins the election on Nov. 8, it will be his first elective victory, so voters don’t have much a personal record they can review. It’s not clear how closely Holcomb will follow the lead of the two Republican governors he served, both of whom shaped a more aggressive Republican education strategy that included more test-based accountability for teachers, students and schools, and support for expanding vouchers and charter schools.

A different tone at the statehouse

Despite his connections to Daniels and Pence, Holcomb has said he wants to set a new tone as governor that would be more cooperative than during the education battles of the last two administrations.

Under Daniels, the state expanded charter school sponsoring, launched the state private school voucher program, established an A-F school grading system and put in place a tough new teacher evaluation system.

After Ritz, a Democrat, scored an upset win in the 2012 superintendent’s race, Pence moved aggressively to block the policy changes she proposed.

The cumulative effect left many teachers feeling weary of politics and unfairly attacked.

From his introduction as a gubernatorial candidate, Holcomb has pledged to take steps to improve the relationship with the state superintendent and show more overt support for teachers.

Big differences with Democrats remain

On policy, Holcomb and Ritz are still far apart. Consider:

Testing. Ritz wants to junk the state’s ISTEP exam in favor of a series of smaller tests that could be scored more quickly and the results returned faster to teachers to use in the classroom. She has argued her approach would reduce test anxiety around the once-a-year exam for students and make the exams more useful.

Holcomb insists the state test should only be given once a year. He also has called for the scores to be delivered to teachers more quickly but has not explained how to do that while keeping the same basic design as ISTEP.

School choice. Holcomb describes himself as a strong supporter of school choice programs, like charter schools and vouchers. And he said he wants the state to take action to try to improve schools with persistently low test scores, even if it’s not necessarily through controversial state takeovers of local schools that the state tried under Daniels.

Preschool. Even where he agrees with Ritz and Gregg — that the state should expand its preschool pilot program — Holcomb takes a different approach. He said he does not think the state should offer to pay for preschool for any four-year-old who enrolls as Ritz and Gregg have proposed, just those from poor families. He also envisions a slower expansion of the five-county pilot that serves about 1,500 poor children today, perhaps a few more counties at a time.