‘State of education’ speech – what would Martin think?

The high-minded idealism in Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett’s “state of education” speech was almost enough to make a person shout amen. But you have to wonder what Martin Luther King Jr., whose words Bennett invoked, would have thought of the superintendent’s assertion that school funding doesn’t matter. Or his argument that schools will compete their way to excellence.

Bennett spoke Monday at Creston Middle School on the east side of Indianapolis. The speech will be broadcast at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday on public TV stations, including WTIU in Bloomington. You can read the text on the Indiana Department of Education website.

Citing Democratic U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s statement that education is “the civil rights issue of our time,” the Republican superintendent went further: “It’s the civil rights issue for every generation.”

Bennett talked about visiting Indiana schools where most kids come from low-income and minority households. “While there are some exceptional educators in these schools, research tells us these students are least likely to have great teachers and leadership,” he said. And he called for school options to be available to all families, an idea in keeping with state efforts to encourage more charter schools. “Children should not be forced to conform to the environment at the school they are ‘supposed to’ attend based on their ZIP Code,” he said. “We must make sure all families – no matter their address, income, or skin color – have great options for their children.”

The central policy idea in Bennett’s speech – that “once we have a consistent and fair way to evaluate educators, we should use those evaluations to reward, remediate and even remove teachers as appropriate” – wasn’t new. The words “consistent and fair,” along with the recognition that such evaluations don’t yet exist, sounded almost like an olive branch for teachers.

Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, seemed to take it that way, telling the Indianapolis Star that the superintendent gave an excellent speech.

More interesting was what Bennett said about information that will be posted on the Learning Connection, a state education website: “By next fall, parents will be able to see the growth history for their child’s teacher so they will know how successful that adult has been in helping students grow academically. What a powerful tool for parents!”

Indeed, the Los Angeles Times caused a major stink this month when it published just such information about LA teachers. See education journalist John Merrow’s blog and reader responses for a thoughtful discussion of the pros and cons of publishing teacher-specific test score gains.

But back to Martin Luther King Jr. Bennett may be completely sincere when he talks about race and poverty, but it felt odd to hear the language of the 1960s civil rights movement at what seemed a bit like a partisan pep rally for market-based reform. (One person who attended the speech reported that there were maybe 10 blacks and Latinos in the invited audience of about 250 people).

The lines that Bennett quoted, about how cowardice asks whether an action is safe but conscience asks if it is right, etc., were apparently used by King on different occasions near the end of his life, when he was speaking out against the Vietnam War, organizing a controversial “Poor People’s Campaign” and calling for “massive, militant” nonviolent resistance to racism and poverty. He also was traveling in and out of Memphis to support striking sanitation workers – the cause that ultimately cost his life on April 4, 1968.

Bennett, praising Indiana schools Monday for doing more with less, endorsed a decision by Fort Wayne Community Schools to outsource the jobs of school custodians – which may have saved teaching positions but probably did away with living-wage employment for parents of some Fort Wayne students. Martin Luther King may have agreed with Bennett that we should “put students first.” It’s doubtful he would have agreed with putting working people last.

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