Bennett on reform: Get on board or get left

Education reform in Indiana is like a railroad track, state Superintendent Tony Bennett told a Bloomington, Ind., audience today. One rail is the competition provided by private-school vouchers and more charter schools. The other is new teacher evaluations and limits on collective bargaining.

The cross-ties? Those are accountability, as in the A-to-F letter grade system for schools and state takeover of low-performing schools.

It’s an interesting metaphor; a little clunky, maybe, but good for keeping the conversation going.

“Quite honestly, I see that railroad track as the big divide,” countered Monroe County Community schools Superintendent Judith DeMuth, who joined Bennett and others for a panel discussion sponsored by the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.

Noting that Bennett admits to being influenced by school reforms in Florida, she said, “In Florida there are haves and have-nots, and I don’t want to see that for my children and grandchildren.”

While Bennett focused on the structural reforms that the Indiana legislature passed this year, DeMuth and Steve Kain, superintendent of Richland-Bean Blossom schools, had other priorities in mind. They said Indiana needs to provide adequate resources for public schools, which haven’t yet made up for the $300 million in funding cuts they suffered two years ago.

And they called for more state support for early childhood education. Indiana boosted funding for full-day kindergarten this year, but not enough to cover the full cost. It’s one of 10 states that don’t fund public pre-kindergarten programs, said panelist Terry Spradlin, director of education policy for the Center on Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University – who, in the spirit of transparent accountability, gave Indiana grades of C and “incomplete” for early childhood programs.

But this was mostly the Tony Bennett show, and the superintendent has in fact become quite adept at selling his views on education, even to a somewhat skeptical audience.

He batted away a question about vouchers providing tax support for religious and political extremism, insisting he’s “pretty agnostic” about what types of schools should get public support. The point, he said, is that low-income parents should have the same choice for their kids that more wealthy parents have. “Why shouldn’t they go where their needs are best met?” he said.

He hailed education reform as one of the few public issues where there seems to be some bipartisanship, with Democratic Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supporting the same charter-school and merit-pay initiatives as Bennett and other Republican state officials.

He insisted that passionate disagreement and debate is ultimately good for education. “We have reached consensus for so long that we’ve gotten complacent,” he said.

He could take an old bluegrass hymn as his theme song: “Keep your hands upon the throttle, and your eyes upon the rail.”


11 thoughts on “Bennett on reform: Get on board or get left

      • Hey, Steve, I did, the passed me on to BCATS but they said they didn’t record it. I emailed Bennett to see if his remarks are available. It doesn’t matter a whole bunch. I’ve got a post about to go up. Your angle above had more juice than bethany’s which isn’t surprising but I sure wish Bob would have asked the questions I sent to him!

      • With four panelists and the fairly brief time slot, not many questions got asked. Apparently the written questions were being turned over to DOE staff, but I don’t know if they will respond. Bob did ask the question that I submitted from the audience – the one that Bennett “batted away.”

      • On message–a machine doesn’t stop to ask you how you like to be ground up.

        my questions for bennett about all the privateering “dirty deals” with take-over.

        for DeMuth…why does PLC and Bus scheduling have primacy over children’s health (early start).

  1. Thanks, Steve for your honest assessment. I must say I was very disappointed with the political show I saw at Binford. So disappointing and his rude remark about the ship has sailed get over it, in regard to questions about vouchers, evaluations was so disappointing.

  2. Expanding vouchers and charters…no empirical evidence that it has ever worked…just look at the Milwaukee Public Schools who have been doing it for twenty years.

    Collective bargaining has never been shown to be an impediment to student learning. Finland consistently has the best international scores…90% union.

    Merit pay based on test scores…no empirical evidence it works. Lots of studies show the opposite (Nashville Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools etc.)

    Grading schools? Political stunt. Those grades can’t possibly reflect climate or instruction. Simplistic and counter-productive. Pushes school to emphasize teaching to the test (this is happening in every school in Indiana by the way…the public has no idea how we drill to the tests now).

    State takeover? An excuse to privatize schools. The state does not have the ability, resources ($), or expertise to turn any school around.
    Sad shell game where someone makes a profit off public monies.

    This isn’t reform. It’s the institution of ideology under the guise of reform.

    Privatization needs a Trojan horse.

  3. Pingback: Rethinking whether it’s OK to leave children behind « School Matters

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