The anti-Common Core election campaign that wasn’t

It’s been 19 months since Glenda Ritz upset Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, but some people are still struggling to make sense of the election. One tempting explanation: Voters punished Bennett for supporting the Common Core State Standards. From there, it’s a short step to imagining a campaign that didn’t happen.

You’ll see it in “The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar,” a Fordham Institute policy piece on state education departments. “Political backlash has often frustrated state efforts to adopt, protect, and implement the CCSS,” the report says. “Tony Bennett, Indiana’s chief, was defeated in an upset election by Glenda Ritz, who ran largely on an anti-CCSS platform.”

In fact, that didn’t happen at all. I wasn’t involved in Ritz’s campaign, but I paid pretty close attention. I don’t recall her raising Common Core as an issue, much less running “largely on an anti-CCSS platform.” But I don’t entirely trust my memory, so I reached out to people who were involved in the campaign, to the organization Republicans for Glenda Ritz, even to someone who is close to Bennett. They all agreed that Common Core wasn’t a point of emphasis for Ritz or much of a factor in the election.

Trish Whitcomb, Ritz’s campaign manager, said Ritz didn’t campaign against Common Core. The topic would occasionally come up at campaign events or on social media, she said; and Ritz would say Indiana had rushed to adopt CCSS in 2010 without much input and it would be appropriate to take another look.

She held to that position after taking office. “State superintendent Glenda Ritz says she wants to talk more about a set of nationally-crafted academic standards Indiana is already rolling out in some classrooms,” State Impact Indiana reported in February 2013. “But she doesn’t want to get rid of them.”

The national narrative that Bennett was a martyr to Common Core started taking shape right after the election. Anti-CCSS groups from the right-wing Eagle Forum to the newly organized Hoosiers Against Common Core fed the idea. Bennett supporters like the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess reasoned that it had to have been Common Core (and Arne Duncan’s support for it) that did Bennett in.

But from Indiana, things looked very different.

“I think it was, people were very unhappy with the approach Tony Bennett had in general – this top down, ‘you will do this’ approach,” Whitcomb said.

Bennett himself told Joy Resmovits of Huffington Post that the voters were saying “Tony Bennett isn’t a good person who doesn’t like public education.”

I contacted the Fordham Institute to see if it could provide any evidence that Ritz ran primarily on an anti-Common Core platform. Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners, one of the report’s authors, phoned, and we had a brief, pleasant conversation. He thanked me for calling attention to the issue and said, essentially, that he’d heard the Common Core explanation and accepted it.

Maybe, he said, this is a narrative that the reform community tells itself to make sense of the election.

And that makes a lot of sense to me. Members of that community wouldn’t want to think a conservative, reliably Republican state like Indiana could reject Bennett’s record: greatly expanded school choice, A-to-F grades for schools, test-based accountability for teachers, etc. Much easier to blame anti-Common Core forces: the “barbarians at the gate,” in the words of Arizona’s schools chief.

From Indiana, the 2012 election story was pretty simple, if still surprising. Bennett, through his agenda and his aggressive approach, alienated nearly every teacher in the state, Democrat or Republican. Teachers have friends, neighbors, parents, siblings, cousins. They turned out and they voted.

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5 thoughts on “The anti-Common Core election campaign that wasn’t

  1. You are exactly right and the Fordham Institute is exactly wrong. There were anti-Common Core voters attracted to Glenda, but that wasn’t Glenda’s platform. Your last paragraph sums it up well except that it is too narrow. Bennett’s aggressive approach alienated more than just teachers. He alienated many parents and public school supporters from all walks of life.

    • Thanks, Marilyn, good point. I should also add that Glenda’s campaign team did a great job of using social media and word-of-mouth to connect and energize her supporters. She had a great “ground game,” and her opponent didn’t.

  2. OK, while I agree with your main premise that the 2012 Indiana election of Ritz was not about Common Core, I disagree that it didn’t play an important part (but than again so did the weather if you look at it from this perspective). Don’t forget that the 2012 election was a narrow one where Ritz only won with 52% of the vote. I think that Common Core sentiment provided 2%-4% of that and made it possible to get over the hump. Also, remember this was before the grade change scandal. If Bennett was up for election after that disgrace, I think Ritz might win with at least 60%-70% of the vote. Hoosiers Against the Common Core had been slowly gaining influence since fall of 2011 and with the election of Ritz they were already in position to start the common core pause bill debate and get the pause passed by the house in April of 2013, and then build even more support later, which came from a grassroots campaign combined later with powerful right wing voices from across the country. Hoosiers Against the Common Core at the time was touting Ritz ambiguous position over Bennett’s outright opposition on its website (in which they link to a Scott Elliot article when he was at Indy Star as evidence that the victory was about Common Core here http://hoosiersagainstcommoncore.com/indianas-education-election-is-a-mixed-bag/ ; I find it interesting he linked to this article on Chalkbeat Indiana but didn’t address it). However, it was none other than Tony Bennett himself that seemed to popularize the anti-Common Core explanation immediately following the election: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/state_edwatch/2012/11/tony_bennett_says_common_core_in_jeopardy_in_indiana.html .

    • Thanks, Jorge. My main point was that Ritz didn’t run “largely on an anti-CCSS platform,” and I’d like to nip that reformist narrative in the bud. I think we’ll never know exactly how big a role Common Core played without looking into the heart of every voter. I personally don’t think it was decisive — and I’m told that Dr. Bennett has more recently taken that position too.

      I know Hoosiers Against were starting to organize a few months before the election, and Russ Pulliam at the Star wrote about tea-party opposition in August 2012. But I still think very few people were paying attention — no Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh breast-beating — until 2013.

      Bennett probably did alienate some Obama haters by sometimes saying kind words about the president and about Arne Duncan. Also, the A-F grading system he pushed was kind of rough on charter schools, which cooled the ardor of the Chamber and other business supporters. I think his ground game wasn’t very strong, and there wasn’t synergy between him and Pence.

      But I suppose we’ll never know what all went into the election. I remain convinced that teacher-parent activism was the overriding theme, though.

  3. Pingback: The Bennett-Ritz-Common Core narrative that won’t die | School Matters

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