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Shocking upset in Indiana steered new education chief Tony Bennett to Florida

Gov. Rick Scott, left, and incoming Education Commissioner Tony Bennett spend time with school officials on Wednesday at Roland Park K-8 Magnet School in Tampa.
Published Dec. 14, 2012

Tony Bennett's loss in the Indiana school superintendent's race last month was so shocking that the teachers union president calls it the biggest political upset in state history.

Yet Bennett's arrival as Florida's education commissioner is so predictable that national experts were blogging about it within moments of his defeat. Indiana's rejection meant that a Jeb Bush protege, a darling of the conservative education reform movement, was suddenly available to a state seeking a schools leader.

"Given that folks are likely to be clamoring for his services (including the state of Florida, which is desperately seeking a new chief), it's safe to say Bennett will be just fine," American Enterprise Institute education policy scholar Rick Hess blogged on Education Week the next day.

The story of how Bennett was ousted from Republican-led Indiana and welcomed in Republican-led Florida is a tale of two states at different stages on the road to education reform.

In Indiana, Bennett came under fire not only from teachers, but also some principals, superintendents and some parents for his aggressive reform agenda.

"He alienated all those groups," said Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

But Florida already has weathered much of the controversy that sank Bennett in Indiana. Reforms he pushed — such as rating schools with grades of A to F — have been under way for years here. Also, education commissioner is an appointed post in Florida, so he won't face angry voters.

Despite the unpopularity of many reforms, he had been seen as nearly unbeatable — a GOP incumbent who raised more than $1.5 million against a poorly funded Democrat.

"He's a Republican in a Republican state, and he had gotten such a great national reputation," observed Andy Smarick, a former New Jersey deputy education commissioner now at an education nonprofit serving low-income children. "It was just assumed he was going to win."

"I was completely surprised," said David Harris, founder and CEO of an Indianapolis education reform group called The Mind Trust. "But I think basically everyone was surprised."

Bennett's opponent, Democrat Glenda Ritz, a classroom teacher who had won teacher of the year honors in two Indiana school districts, raised only about $300,000 and had never before run for office.

But her campaign tapped into discontent that had been brewing for years among teachers and other groups.

This bitterness centered on Bennett's impatient push for major changes in teacher evaluations, school grading, charter schools, vouchers and other programs, critics say. Bennett said schools should be graded and that the good schools should be rewarded.

But Schnellenberger says the reforms "were seen as punitive rather than as encouraging.

"He would never listen," Schnellenberger said. People didn't like the fact that schools could be penalized financially when the school grade dropped, he said.

Bennett believed in his reforms, but did not seem to consider input from people with other perspectives, Schnellenberger said.

Harris admires and supports many of the reforms championed by Bennett, but acknowledges his blunt style might have hurt politically.

"He was very willing to take on challenging issues and push controversial positions if he thought that was in the best interest of the kids of the state of Indiana. He did not trim his language based on who his audience was," Harris said.

The Ritz campaign used low-tech and high-tech ways of fighting their formidable opponent. Teachers organized "cellphone parties," getting together in living rooms and calling friends to tell them about Ritz, her communications director David Galvin said.

Teachers handwrote hundreds of post cards and mailed them to voters in targeted precincts. They also campaigned on social media by asking each of their Facebook friends to tell 10 more friends about Ritz.

And the novice Democratic candidate also skillfully appealed to a group most Democrats might not have considered — Tea Party Republicans opposed to a set of educational standards called Common Core, which they believe gives too much educational authority to the federal government. The program, supported by Bennett, already is being implemented in Florida.

Despite the controversy in Indiana, advocates of the types of education reform championed by Bennett, Jeb Bush and others are excited.

Said Smarick: "I can't imagine a better fit between a state in its life cycle of reform and this state chief."

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