It's ludicrous to equate Tony Bennett's defeat in the school superintendent's race with public rejection of a school reform agenda, as many in the education bureaucracy are trying to do.
The public wants better schools, which is why Glenda Ritz, the teacher-Democrat who upset Bennett, must be extremely cautious before trying to dismantle any reform ingredients put in place by Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels.
The public feels about schools and teachers much like they do about members of Congress. They don't like 'em, unless they happen to be their teachers and their schools. In that case, they're just fine. No one wants to admit his own offspring might be getting a second-rate education.
Bennett's defeat can be blamed on two forces. One is the strong word-of-mouth network that teachers operate in this state. That network was solidly behind putting a colleague in the superintendent's seat.
The other was a faction within what should have been Bennett's conservative base. These are folks opposed to Common Core, the new curriculum and testing initiative coming to Indiana thanks to Bennett's and Gov. Daniels' somewhat surprising support for nationalized standards.
There should be no debate over Indiana's commitment to improving schools and teachers.
Ritz and the union don't like our new A-to-F grading system for schools, but it's been hailed nationally as a model. The quickest way to force a school to start doing things differently is to give it a C or lower. If grades motivate children, you can bet they'll do the same to teachers and administrators.
More worrisome is the fate of the new teacher assessment system, which uses student test scores in determining a teacher's effectiveness and therefore earning potential. Indiana is one of 20 states that require that student test score gains be used in personnel decisions.
The union has objected so loudly to this that some Hoosiers may not realize scores are just one of several variables taken into account.
The 2012 Education Next-PEPG Survey, a highly respected poll of public opinion, found strong support among the public for using test score information to hold teachers accountable.
Asked how much weight should be given to test scores and how much to principal recommendations, for example, the public said test score gains should be given more than half the weight (62 percent) in salary and tenure decisions. Teachers, by contrast, said test scores should be given only a quarter of the weight (24 percent). That's a big gap between the public and the teachers.
The same survey found majority support for school choice initiatives, such as the Indiana voucher program that Ritz and the union have been fighting in court.
Ritz built her campaign on the idea that the Daniels-Bennett machine moved too fast on reforms without consulting educators. After her election she announced, “Voters have loudly and clearly spoken against that.”
She will find herself on the losing end of the debate if she tries to undo — or fails to fully support — policies that are currently the law of the state of Indiana. She'll also find herself at war with the 11-member state education board, 10 of whom are appointed by the governor. (She's the 11th).
In that case, she can expect to lose her job before the next election. The state school superintendent post is constitutional, but the fact that it is elective is a matter of statute. Indiana is one of only 11 states in which the governor appoints the board and citizens elect the chief school officer. In a majority of states, the superintendent is appointed by either the governor or the board and is accountable first and foremost to them.
Republicans don't want to go there — yet. However, with education the most critical issue facing us, it is deeply problematic for reformers in the governor's office and legislature to be at odds with the chief school officer. With super majorities in both chambers of the legislature, Republicans shouldn't hesitate to do what they must to give our reforms a chance to bear fruit.