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GOP firm despite education coup

Democrats say Bennett’s loss a rejection of reforms

– Top Republican officials, including the current and future governor, argued vehemently Wednesday that their education reform mandate is intact despite the defeat of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

“The consensus and the momentum for reform and change in Indiana is rock solid,” Gov. Mitch Daniels said.

“Every other factor that matters is aligned in this state in the direction of progress and change and reform, of teacher accountability, of more choices for families, more ability for school leadership to lead.”

Gov.-elect Mike Pence said his election on an agenda of education change, as well as the House’s picking up a supermajority of members, points to Hoosiers supporting continued progress in the area.

“We have a strong affirmation on the progress of education reform in this state,” he said, noting he hopes to work with Democrats in a bipartisan fashion next year.

But the new superintendent of public instruction, career teacher Glenda Ritz, takes issue with the Republicans’ assessment of the election.

“(Bennett’s defeat) was a direct message on the education policies of the last four years. It was a referendum going forward,” she said.

Ritz and others noted that she received more votes than even Pence – 1.3 million in all – and said the Republican leadership of the state can’t ignore her role in the process.

Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said any reasonable person can see that ousting the superintendent of public instruction is a direct comment on recent changes.

Bennett, 51, clashed with teachers around the state when pushing a pile of reforms, including taxpayer-financed vouchers for private school, more charter schools, reduction in power to collectively bargain for teachers and tying teacher pay to student scores.

The Indiana Department of Education also took over several failing schools and loosened teacher licensing requirements to allow more professionals in the classroom.

Ritz said Bennett had a 10-1 fundraising edge over her, including loads of help from national education advocacy groups, but her grassroots effort prevailed in the end.

Only GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma said clearly that Bennett’s loss was about him – not his policies.

He first noted that many of the education changes were pushed by the legislature – not Bennett – and that House Republicans were largely re-elected while picking up nine seats in all.

“This is not an indictment in any way of reforms,” Bosma said. “Some of the education reform controversy deals with the tone and presentation of the reforms and how it’s explained. Occasionally the discussion moved into arenas that teachers found offensive.”

Daniels even raised the prospect of making the position appointed by the governor – something he ran on in 2004 but never actively put on his legislative agenda during his eight-year term. Pence said he has not formed an opinion on that matter.

“Oh, isn’t that something?” said Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “The election didn’t work out the way they wanted, so they’ll change the rules. Can you imagine the backlash of undoing an election? That would be asinine.”

Schnellenberger said he hoped Republicans would see the defeat as a chance to take a step back and consider that they might not be right all the time.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is at least willing to listen.

“The voters are sending a message,” he said. “I’ll be very attentive to what seemed to drive her to victory.”

Kruse believes Bennett’s tendency to move forward without consulting educators offended people.

“It was an anti-Tony Bennett vote more than a pro-Glenda Ritz vote,” Kruse said.

But he acknowledged working closely with Ritz on various bills in 2011 and said he looks forward to maintaining that positive relationship.

nkelly@jg.net

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