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

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.